Staging a murder mystery ‘whodunit’ for gifted and talented children can provide great scope for secondary enrichment, says G&T consultant Bob Cox

How did a simple murder mystery idea that started with a group of pupils in a single school end up getting an enthusiastic reception at one of the largest national conferences for G&T education ever held?

Starting out
The deputy head at Chesham Park Community College in Buckinghamshire asked his ‘resident’ teaching and learning consultant (me) for a new idea to use after school with a keen group of teenagers, newly identified on the register for able, gifted and talented. The school was already on its way to becoming the first in the country to gain the NACE Challenge Award and was looking to build on good practice in enrichment.

I devised some simple plot lines for a murder mystery set during the Crimean war and negotiated different roles with the pupils, who warmed to the varied demands.

 The project covers a range of learning styles and brings teachers together cross-phase, something which is having a very beneficial effect for all concerned. It has stimulated a lot of talk about transition issues.

In the second half of the murder mystery presentation, pupils asked the primary school audience to guess ‘whodunit?’ and the team worked as facilitators with a Year 6 class. (This is the most exciting stage with sugar paper, prompts, frantic disagreements and time limits. There is usually a hushed silence, then cheer, before the denouement and a careful explanation of motive and evidence!)

The murder mystery experience was particularly relevant for G&T pupils: a very high skill level was needed for pupils to operate effectively as facilitators. They had to judge how to prompt younger pupils to move on with their thinking: if they offered too much information the audience would solve the ‘whodunit’ too quickly. Most pupils found this more demanding than the introductory role play, over which there was an element of control. Afterwards, they generally felt that facilitating younger children towards a particular goal had released new confidence in them and it certainly required sophisticated speaking and listening skills.

The initial presentation included some demanding thinking too, designed to give contexts within which G&T pupils can excel: they had to research into the Crimean war and the battle of Balaclava; prepare a dramatic rendition of the charge of the Light Brigade; act convincingly the part of their chosen character; and work with other pupils who may not even be in the same year as them.

For follow-up, some schools challenged pupils to devise their own murder mystery or adapt approaches to a different audience. Teachers used pupils as directors, team leaders and masters of ceremonies. Sometimes pupils generally labelled as ‘shy’ or ‘quiet’ have excelled because they have found themselves in a challenging context with few boundaries. They are away from their normal peer groups and can discover another part of their personality. The skills that teachers suspected were always there, begin to blossom.

Extending the project to other schools
Other schools started to get interested in using the plot lines, which involve a number of Victorian characters and a shocking murder. Each time, a school adapted the murder mystery to its own needs: Burnham Upper School recognised the potential of performing to the whole of Year 6 and took it to different feeder schools; Burnham Grammar placed it regularly on their school calendar and invited feeder schools to attend for a morning. They have also added their own music and have had time to develop the characterisation further.

The concept has proved flexible and the teachers have shown ingenuity in applying creative approaches. For the pupils, the chance to be a facilitator in the audience has proved daunting, yet satisfying. Both older and younger pupils have had to evaluate continually and analyse evidence to get anywhere near the ‘truth’.

NACE heard about the success of murder mystery in Buckinghamshire and suggested presenting the outline at the Challenge Award National Conference. But there was really only one way of communicating the excitement of the project: get pupils to present the whodunit to teachers! Burnham Grammar accepted the challenge. A week after presenting murder mystery to a feeder school, the pupils presented to 50 teachers – desperately trying to think through the answers and the reasons.

Murder mystery is also about to be used by a Year 10 drama group. It is not a variation on the school play, but a genuine chance for pupils of different ages to work together on a project that utilises varied learning styles but with a focused outcome. This time, all they achieve will be assessed as part of drama GCSE, another new context for the project.

Key points for setting up an enriching murder mystery

  • Pupils work as a team to deliver a murder mystery to younger pupils at a feeder school.
  • Teams can be made up from different years.
  • Pupils need to understand the background to the murder mystery.
  • Make the project cross-curricular, involving literacy, history, drama, ICT, geography and music.
  • Pupil presentations use PowerPoint and ICT.
  • Follow-up features evaluation and links to further enrichment.
    Many schools have used the project to improve links with feeder schools and to facilitate the transition process.

The plot lines used in the murder mystery enrichment have been put onto a CD so that others can introduce a little murder and mystery into their schools. For more information on the murder mystery disc contact: [email protected]

Bob Cox is a consultant for able, gifted and talented education in Buckinghamshire.