secret
10 Jul 2019

Secrets, Clues, and the Art of Teaching

Everyone loves a good secret. The allure of hidden knowledge has a way of sharpening our minds and drawing us into a world of mystery. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the overall topic, the spice of new information is a hard treat to resist. At least, that was my experience freshmen year of high school, when one of my teachers decided to share a fascinating secret.

It occurred in Chemistry 101. Now, as a bookworm, I must confess that chemistry was not my favorite subject. Formulas and spreadsheets didn’t mesh with my literary nature, so I tended to drift off during lectures. But on this day, my teacher began the class by starting a small fire in a metal dish. A small, green fire.

That got my attention. You might even say it sparked my curiosity (sorry, couldn’t resist). What chemical had turned the fire green? And why did its addition cause the color to change? For the rest of the lesson I was the very picture of concentration.

It turns out that when you add copper sulfate to a fire, the flames burn with a greenish-blue tinge. This is because the atom’s electrons lose their energy as the copper burns. When electrons drop down to a lower energy level, their lost power can be released as light. Fun fact, this is also how we create fireworks!

The Game’s Afoot

I may not remember much about chemistry, but I still remember that lesson. Framing the information as a secret was just the hook I needed to engage with the material. As educators, one of our most difficult tasks is creating content which pulls students out of their apathetic funk and inspires them to chase after the answer. Students should view their studies as an adventure, not a chore. So why not apply this “secretive” approach to all our lessons?

If you want your class to get personally invested in the material, a wisp of conspiracy might do the trick. It’s really quite easy. Just give your students a secret and watch them work to unravel the mystery:

  • Science secret: Did you know that chocolate will cool down your mouth after eating an extra-hot chili pepper? Why do you think that is?  
  • Social Studies secret: There’s a certain individual who changed the world as we know it, and you’ve probably never heard of them. Want me to tell you more?
  • Math secret: Did you know there are mathematical formulas which can be used to create music? Want to try one?
  • English/Language Arts secret: Did you know this book reflects problems the author was experiencing in his home country? Want me to explain?
Those Little Grey Cells

The best secrets are those which, once revealed, lead to more than answers. Let this drive your instruction, more than any scripted lesson plan. Trust your students with a piece of information that is known only to a select few. Then guide the questions toward your learning objectives, all the while abetting secrecy and intrigue.

Whether it’s discovering the themes of classic literature or unmasking the forgotten heroes of history, knowing a secret makes us feel special, exceptional even. The resulting sense of self-worth is an ideal backdrop for your classroom instruction. So, put on your detective hat and rewrite tomorrow’s lesson as a treasure hunt, a stealth mission, maybe even a murder-mystery. Share a few secrets that will capture their imagination, then give them a learning experience they’ll never forget!

What about you? How do you ignite student engagement in your classroom? Feel free to share your strategies in the comments below!
Content for this blog was drawn from the writings of Terra Tarango.

*Image courtesy of Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego. Catch the first season of this fun-filled, educational program streaming now!

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