Mysteries can be extremely engaging, powerful thinking skills activities. They involve giving small groups of learners a set of cards containing many different pieces of information and challenging them to answer a Focus Question by sorting, connecting and making sense of the information.

The mystery can be convergent (there is one right answer - like in this maths example: "Does Amelie make it to the catwalk?"), or divergent (there are a number of ways learners can connect the information and draw different conclusions - like in some of these History examples).

Mysteries present very important opportunities for meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), and sufficient time should be allowed for plenarising the activity and engaging learners in reflection about how they went about the task.  Also encourage learners to consider where they can use these skills (sorting, classifying, evaluating information, drawing together evidence, making inferences, etc) more widely.

For examples in most KS3 subjects from the very useful Nottinghamshire County Council Thinking Skills site, click here.


  1. Rosamunde15:47

    Island Murder Mystery
    Five year 5 children

    Please give a brief description of how you adapted this tool for use in your classroom.
    I did this activity with five high achieving Maths pupils. They were divided in a group of 3 and a group of 2.

    The children were very animated and excited to solve the mystery. They began by sorting the cards and identifying the names of the suspects. The initial conclusion, without having fully read the clues was that ‘Wendy could not have done it because it is mainly men who commit murders.’

    The children took a full hour to solve the mystery but were very focused and motivated throughout the task. There was excellent collaboration between each group who came together to discuss their reasoning.

    The small group of children needed a lot of teacher input to focus their attention on the details of the clues. They also needed help to work systematically to eliminate each possible suspect for the murder and give reasons based on the clues. They found this surprisingly difficult and tended to rather guess than thoroughly reading the clues and piecing the relevant information together. They needed a lot of questioning to help them reason through their solutions and realise that some of their solutions were not correct.

    I think this task would probably be suited to high achievers in a small group with an adult to guide their thinking and reasoning.

  2. Michelle15:50

    Bonfire Night Maths Mystery- Year 4

    I read some of the other examples from the website and created my own money based Bonfire Night themed mystery to use during Maths Week. I wrote the situation first and added the numbers in last, making sure they worked.

    My class find word problems and problem solving quite challenging, so I stopped them regularly and we discussed different strategies and I did some modelling on the board.

    Year 4 loved this! I told them that it was something new that I had learned at the start of term and this made them more excited and curious. They worked in mixed ability pairs or threes and they enjoyed working with children they're not normally with in Maths. When I asked them if they had enjoyed solving the mystery they all said yes and they all said they'd like to have that type of lesson again.

    A TA was working with a boy with behavioural difficulties to facilitate him working in a group. Otherwise they worked independently, with the more able children providing support within their pairs/threes.

    Tip: I found it much easier to write all of the pieces of information first and then put the numbers in last, making sure that they worked nicely.

  3. Melissa15:51

    Tool tried: Mysteries

    I used this in maths to stimulate the children to solve word problems by making it a mystery. They worked in ability groups with differentiated questions. The TA supported the LA group which had simple operations.

    It was the main activity after a week of work on solving problems.

    They really liked the challenge and the excitement of it being a mystery.

    The LA children needed support and guidance, so the TA worked with them.

    It took a long time to make up the mysteries and needed to be differentiated. The children need to be able to work in groups.

  4. Emily15:53

    Fashion Show Maths Mystery Yr 5

    I created a ‘mystery’ for maths which was based on one that Jake showed us in INSET. Jake’s mystery was more suited to older children and was based on a girl trying to make it to a fashion show. I loved the idea of working out whether she made it to the airport in time to catch the plane by calculating time, speed etc…

    When I was adapting this, I kept in mind that I teach a lower attaining year 5 maths group and that I needed to simplify this a lot! So I used the general story behind it and wrote a series of word problems that linked together to answer the question ‘Does she make it to the fashion show in time?’ The children had to calculate how much time had passed between each event in the day, e.g. getting up, getting ready, taxi arriving, taxi breaking down etc…

    Instead of having them on separate cards, I put them into a word problem template so the children had to work out the operation, write down the calculation and then check it. I also numbered each box so they did not need to organise the cards themselves. The children were very excited and kept telling me it was easy. However, when it came to solving the mystery, many of them got it wrong! I made a point of talking the children through their mistakes and encouraging them to pinpoint where in the mystery they got muddled. They said they really enjoyed it and asked if they could do it again. I did not have a TA in my class for this lesson which was a shame as I would have liked support for a table of children in my class who got overwhelmed by information. The TA could have guided them through each step which would have been great.

  5. Ellie and Olivia15:55

    Maths mystery Year 5/6

    We used this mystery in a middle and higher ability year 5/6 maths classes.

    The children were given a series of statements about an explosion that was going to go off at Thunderbirds base camp. Lady Penelope was sent to save the world and had 2 options of transport; the first was driving by car and the second was travelling by train. In groups the children needed to sort the information to see if she could get to the base camp in time to save the world.

    They had a choice of 2 routes and were required to use calculations of time, conversion and distance travelled according to time. The children firstly had to sort which information went with which journey and then order this information into the 2 separate journeys using diagrams or a time-line.

    At the end of the lesson the children shared their solutions and how they approached the problem as well as checking the answers with the rest of the class.

    Higher ability
    They thoroughly enjoyed the activity as they felt challenged. They requested to have more activities like this in future lessons. Some children who were less confident were slightly daunted by their task and felt out of their comfort zone.

    Middle ability
    A lot of teacher input was needed for the children to sort the appropriate information and then carry out the relevant calculation.
    However they enjoyed the activity and, with more support in my classroom, is something I would definitely use again.

  6. Carol15:57

    Nursery Class
    Time taken to prepare (in minutes) – 10minutes
    Communication and literacy

    Children were given a set of objects and some clues and had to decide what the information they had told them. We hid teddy around the nursery and had a range of objects and the children had to say where they thought teddy might be hiding.

    We worked in groups and talked about the objects and how they might help us find teddy, we talked about why certain pieces of information would be useful e.g a bucket might indicate that teddy was hiding in the sand pit and why knowing other things like the colour of the bucket would not be useful.

    This is a very good activity for nursery children as it generates a lot of questions and develops the language skills of the children. You need to give this activity a lot of time as the children really enjoyed looking for teddy and got better at using the clues.

  7. Used this with a Year 10 group to help them understand the background to this documentary film.

    Handed small groups sets of cards with facts relating to the recent history and political climate in 1972. Groups had to decide how they would run the 1972 Olympics in terms of security and atmosphere.

    Instigated valuable discussion and made the students aware of the background to the film.


(Please post when you have tried this particular tool - thanks!)
How did you adapt this tool for your classroom?
What was the response from your learners?
What advice would you give other teachers about this tool?