Digital History Site Review – Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History:

Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History is a digital educational tool designed to teach history and historical methodology to students ages 11-18. It’s intended mainly for use by teachers to incorporate into their curriculum for assigned student use. The site is made up of twelve separate historical cases with questionably-solved or unsolved crimes. The goal is for students to work through primary documents relating to a particularly exciting historical murder mystery, and to the context in which it took place, in order to draw their own researched conclusion. Created in 1997, through a collaboration between the University of Victoria, the Universite de Sherbrooke, and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and funder partly by the Canadian Culture Online Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage. The site manages to do what history teachers have always strived to do – make history fun and exciting while actually being academically challenging and educational.

It began with one mystery, Who Killed William Robinson? A trip back through the Wayback Machine reveals that originally, the site had few teaching resources beyond the organization of the mystery and documents/essays themselves. Over time they received more collaboration by historians and were able to add more mysteries and programs, a huge array of helpful additional teachers’ resources, as well as more directed, shorter lessons.

In order to do this review, I did a general reading of all of the informational pages, as well as a general browse through the mysteries themselves, and then focused on one of the mysteries – Torture and the Truth: Angelique and the Burning of Montreal – in order to explore the process deeper. In addition to the main mysteries/programs, there are “Mystery Quests,” which are shorter, one or two-lesson activities based on one of the twelve mysteries, which I browsed.

The site is very clear and well-organized. Each mystery is its own site, and referred to as such. Because while similar in approach, each is self-contained and don’t interact. Finding what you’re looking for – browsing the mysteries, finding the additional teachers’ resources, or learning about the project’s foundational ideas or instructional goals, is all very simple. The layout is intuitive, and everything clearly marked and easy to navigate and to read within the material. The mystery sites themselves are also very easy to navigate, as you work from left to right through the site’s menu bar.

When you first click on a mystery, there is a little cinematic intro that sets up the appropriate detective story tone, without being cheesy or cheap. In Torture and the Truth, the story is about a fire that spread quickly and was particularly destructive. We are told that rumors spread the next morning that a slave named Angelique started the fire, with help from her white lover. The mystery then, is whether it was really her, and if so, why. There are 6 menu buttons across the site’s top banner: Home, Montreal is Burning, Context, Trial, Aftermath, and Archives, that students are meant to work through left to right. In each (after the clear and helpful “how to use this site” under “Home”), students encounter an introduction, and sub-sections with short descriptions written by the expert historians, and then directed primary documents.

“Montreal is Burning” gives context by starting the investigation to analyze how regular people experienced and felt about the fire. Three categories are presented – 10 April 1733, Losses, and Theft. Working through these, students gain context, but mostly through primary document reading rather than historians’ synthesis. At this point, I was very pleased with the level of challenge expected of its users, as well as the balance between macabre intrigue and fun, and commitment to presenting serious scholarship.

Each of the rest of the sections are also split into several sub-sections, with a short intro and then a long list of related primary documents. It seems like a daunting amount of information to read, and it sort of is. However, the primary sources are curated, and not presented in full. Some may be a sentence, and others are several paragraphs. It is still a huge amount of information for younger students to go through, especially in historical language. But it’s up to the teachers to split it up into manageable assignments, which is made extremely easy for them with the extensive teachers’ guides the site provides. The guide for Torture and the Truth was 70 pages, complete with many options for class lessons to tie in to the primary source “detective work,” most of which deal with important social issues in Canadian History. Specific assignment sheets, grading rubrics, class discussion topics, and more are included in the guides. Teachers could come up with their own lesson plans, but they could also teach 20 lessons using only what is provided by the site and have more than enough. There are even a sort of “answer key” in the form of expert historian response to the questions posed by the mystery, that are locked behind a teacher-only password.

My only serious criticism is that these mysteries, if taught in full, as intended, are a very big time commitment for teachers and students. They recommend at least 20 lessons be spent on one mystery, which is quite a lot of class time for a history teacher to devote to one thing.

However, if a teacher would like to get involved or use this teaching method without committing more than a couple lessons, there are now Mystery Quests. These are shorter, more directed lessons that draw from the main mysteries. The Mystery Quests are separated into three age groups, 11-14, 14-16, and 16-18. In the younger age group, the quests are more general distilled versions of the larger stories, and in the older age groups, the quests pick particular social history themes important to the mysteries as their focus. The Mystery Quest related to Torture and the Truth for the older students is called The Status of Women in New France, for example. It’s still organized as an investigation, through primary source research (just with many fewer documents), but structures those sources around the question of what life was like for women in Quebec at that time. Again, extensive lesson planning, assignments, and grading rubrics are provided. And again, I saw the high standard of academic rigor in the questions posed about the primary documents – for example, asking students to look at what isn’t in the documents, and what that might tell them about the women.

I’m not a teacher, so I can’t personally critique how useful this is to teachers from experience, but I can’t imagine a site providing more (for free) as far as lesson planning, as well as a high quality historical educational product. This site is an innovative resource that seems to actually make learning history (and more importantly doing history) fun for kids, while remaining challenging.


One thought on “Digital History Site Review – Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History:

  1. Pedagogically speaking, it would make sense to use something like this if there was allowance for the teachers themselves to infuse their own curriculum with each mystery. Basically, this would render the mystery more directly relevant to the specific lesson they’re studying as well as allowing for the mystery to serve as a case study. But you’re right, this would be very time consuming indeed.


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