Cognitive tools: A sense of mystery and puzzles

We recognize that there is some risk in including “mystery” among this list of cognitive tools. Apart from any other reason, it might seem a tad eccentric to the teacher working away to teach literacy to a class of diverse learners, many of whose first language might not be English. It might also seem odd to call the recognition of mystery a “cognitive tool.” There is also a problem with the popular sensationalism that is associated with the use of the word, as in “mysteries of the Bermuda triangle” or “mysteries of the ancient world,” though perhaps less objectionable is “mysteries of nature.” But we do think there are ways in which a sense of mystery is an important component in the growth of literacy.

Mystery is a tool that allows us to recognize that whatever we learn about is at best only a tiny fragment of what is to be known. The sense of mystery makes this realization not disabling or depressing, but creates a kind of excitement about the vast riches of understanding that remain available to us. So we don’t simply want to dismiss that sensational aspect of “mystery” as it might appear also in the headlines of such publications as National Inquirer, but want, rather, to work out how it may be turned to educational purposes.

Mystery enables the mind increasingly to recognize that the world around us that we can see and hear and learn how to behave within, is only the immediate surface under which, or behind which, or beyond which are intellectual riches and experiences barely guessed. Mystery is our sense that there is more than we can see and hear and experience in our environment. By opening our minds to this wider, stranger, and less easily accessible world we create the first tool for its exploration.

Puzzles, more accessibly, are things that we can work out but which have an attractive way of pulling in to solve them. Of the two, mysteries are deeper and more powerful, but their little sibling, puzzles also have their place in drawing our minds into engaging dimensions beyond the routine and conventional—and they can add these dimensions to our teaching even while we engage children in learning basic literacy skills.

At one level the sense of mystery is a part of developing intellectual humility. One of the best-known expressions of this came from perhaps the greatest scientific mind of all time. Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) wrote to his nephew that while people might think him so knowledgeable as a result of his work in mathematics, optics, physics, and astronomy, and his discovery of the law of gravitation, the formulation of the basic laws of motion, the development of the calculus, and the analysis of the nature of white light, and so on, he himself took the view that:

“I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me” (in David Brewster, 1855).

Well, we’ve pulled in some heavy-lifters to help us describe this tool. It seems fair to say that behind every explanation lies a mystery. It seems so fair to say it that we’re sure someone must already have done so.

Give me a few quick example of how I might easily teach about, and help students practice using, the sense of mystery in literacy classes.

  • Punctuation, such as the ingenious comma, can lead to students being invited not just to learn the rules, but to wonder about how these various squiggles make the page more hospitable to the eye, and they could be invited to invent new punctuation marks that would add to the courtesy that is the heart of punctuation. These different ways of seeing the familiar constantly open up mysteries surrounding our small and insecure space of knowledge. Students could work in small groups to come up with a new punctuation mark that might help make reading a text easier.
  • We worry about spelling correctly because, of course, if we don’t we can’t recognize the intended meaning. What then do we make of the following?—read fast, pull back, as it were, from your normal style of reading:

“I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mtaetr in what oerdr the ltteres in a word are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is that the frsit and last ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it whotuit a pboerlm. This is bcuseaethe huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt!”

Well, not as simple a message as it may seem. But if you can project that onto a screen and invite your slightly more advanced readers to make sense of it, you will have a topic for a very lively discussion. Is it a mystery? Well, it’s at least a surprise to many, and something of a puzzle. (You may have seen this before. It circulates around the internet)

  • If the previous quick idea works for you and your class, you might want to try the same procedure with this somewhat harder interpretative task, or it’s a puzzle till you get the hang of it, and then something about the mystery of reading is exposed:

7H15 M3554G3
53RV35 7O PR0V3
D0 4M4Z1NG 7H1NG5!
1MPR3551V3 7H1NG5!
1N 7H3 B3G1NN1NG
17 WA5 H4RD BU7
N0W, 0N 7H15 LIN3
R34D1NG 17
W17H 0U7 3V3N
7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17,
C3R741N P30PL3 C4N
R3AD 7H15.
PL3453 F0RW4RD 1F
U C4N R34D 7H15.

How else can we use the sense of mystery and puzzles in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “the sense of mystery and puzzles” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.


Some concluding words about the sense of mystery

In the imaginative classroom we will expect to see much greater emphasis on mysteries and puzzles. These can indeed involve the more sensational kinds trumpeted by popular papers, but should also move constantly in the direction of the deeper mysteries beyond our range of knowledge.