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Decision making, problem solving and mysteries

‘Education should enable students to make sense of the world for themselves, to be critical of information, to enable them to participate in decision making and to promote their own social and intellectual development so that they can get more out of life and contribute more to society.’

Roberts, 2013, p 22

Topics on this page:

What are decision making and problem solving activities? | Why are these activities important for geographical learning? | Managing decision making activities | Decision making in GCSE examinations | Making animals activity | Layered decision making | Mysteries | How to use mysteries | Reading

What are decision making and problem solving activities?

Decision-making and problem solving in geography are activities where an issue or question is identified and investigated. Geography teachers use these activities to provide real world contexts for students to apply and develop their knowledge and skills and develop geographical thinking.

Teachers put students in situations where they are required to evaluate alternatives and reach decisions. This helps students to engage with geographical issues and to gain a critical understanding of the kinds of evidence and skills used for decision making. 

Problem solving takes this further into implementing actions and evaluating the consequences. Mysteries are another form of problem solving that originated in the ‘Thinking through geography’ project.

Why are these activities important for geographical learning?

Decision making and problem solving activities seek to challenge students, so they are put in a position where they have to think hard. While it is important that the context and scenario are not too complex for them to comprehend, it is valuable to give them tasks which are just beyond their present capabilities so they have to struggle a bit.

The Russian psychologist, Vygotsky, described this by the concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ i.e. what a student can do on their own and if supported by more able peers or adults. 

Teachers should select appropriate decision making activities that aim to move students through the zone so they can work independently and move forward from what they can currently do with some support (see Learning theories and geography).

A significant part of the learning in decision-making and problem solving activities is in the analysis and reflection that students engage in as they weigh up the information provided to reach a conclusion. 

These activities are best tackled collaboratively so that several views and opinions have to be considered in making the decision and each person must explain their ideas clearly to their peers to make their case and justify their argument.

Another way in which these activities contribute to good geographical learning is that by drawing in and synthesising elements from across the subject they broaden and deepen students’ understanding. They often involve looking at a problem or an issue holistically, therefore replicating the ways geographers think in real world situations. 

A careful choice of problem and context can mean that students must consider a wide variety of different geographies to reach a decision and must make links across the subject to do so.

  • Rose, C. (2008) ‘Are year 13s too old to think?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Thomas, S. and McGahan, H. (1997) ‘Geography it makes you think’, Teaching Geography, July. – an example of Decision making for Guiseppe Cosanostro. Statements have to be categorised into those that are background information and those that are triggers for his decision on whether to migrate.

Managing decision making activities

Selecting the right geographical question or problem is important. Students need to have sufficient prior knowledge to tackle the problem and make decisions and the teacher must provide the necessary contextual material. Some examples are provided later on this page.

To make the geographical learning worthwhile, students need time to fully explore the problem, discuss ideas and struggle with challenging issues in the process of decision making. They need to have the opportunity to make sense of the information provided and think hard about the geography. 

These activities can extend over one or more lessons. A good decision making activity requires an investment in careful planning so it is important that sufficient lesson time is allocated to allow the activity to achieve its goals.

Consider carefully how you set up groups of students for a decision making activity. The students must work collaboratively and support each other if the strategy is to be successful (see Collaborative learning in geography).

If you are using this type of activity with a class for the first time, you will need to consider what scaffolding to provide to help them tackle the process and manage the analysis of information and data on which to base their decision. This could be in the form of written guidance, or through class discussion and questions (see Scaffolding geographical learning).

Model the process to help them understand that there are no certainties or ‘one right answer’ and how to justify what they decide. Show them the type of outcome you expect, such as reports written by other students, or provide a writing frame. Teachers need to monitor the activity to provide support or further information as necessary, but should not be too hasty to intervene and solve the problem for them!

Decision making activities are supposed to be challenging and you should give students the opportunity to show you what they can achieve. Do not shy back and set your expectations too low. What they can do successfully is highly dependent on their motivation and your thoughtful support. 

If they have good self-esteem and find the topic of interest to them, they will attempt most challenges you present to them. You need to establish the right classroom climate and build a relationship of trust where students feel supported, valued and their efforts are praised.

Develop an activity for yourself, including preparing the resources (GIS offers excellent opportunities for developing decision making activities.) Then plan and teach the sequence of lessons.

Some ideas:

  • Use the Water crisis in Las Vegas resources for a decision-making activity with a focus on sustainability, water conflicts, extreme environments or human–environment interactions.
  • Some exam specifications have decision making papers you could develop further.
  • Where will I live?; refer to the ‘students as citizens’ section and apply these ideas to a similar decision making exercise in your local area.
  • Use some of the ideas from ‘Making animals’ below.

Decision making in GCSE examinations

The current GCSE examination from AQA includes a paper on geographical applications with a section on issue evaluation. This contributes a critical thinking and problem-solving element to the assessment. 

A resource booklet is available in advance, including e.g. maps, graphs, diagrams, photographs, quotes from different interest groups etc. Students are expected to interpret, analyse and evaluate the information and issue(s) in the pre-release resources, make an appraisal of the advantages and disadvantages, and evaluate the alternatives.

Making animals activity

This ‘thinking activity’ is concerned with planning and decision making allowing for particular constraints. One of the early versions was to design an animal, hence the title, but the activity does not need to include animals! The basic premise of the original activity was that students have to design an animal that would be adapted to live in a particular environment.

The constraints they had to think about are environmental factors and how animals can adapt to particular conditions. The idea can be applied to other situations where there are specific parameters. Nichols and Kinninment (2001) gives examples that includes topics such as natural regions, migration, a shanty town. This is a very flexible activity! (See Making Animals)

The three important characteristics of the generic strategy are:

  • A context to work within
  • Features to choose – to design something in that context
  • Constraints on their choice – such as the number of features or the amount they can spend.
  • Refer to the example of ‘Backpacking in Italy’ in Leat and McGrane (2000) which includes the resources used. You could design a similar task for another topic/location.

Some hints on managing ‘Backpacking in Italy’

  • The task needs a good introduction or ‘framing’ to establish the relevance and purpose of the decisions students are being asked to make.
  • Ensure you focus on the place aspects of the context – where is the geography?
  • The activity works best in pairs so they work cooperatively on the decisions.
  • Eavesdrop their thinking so you can use this in the debriefing.
  • Expect a range of responses: some students may struggle with the interrelationship of human and geography factors.
  • Warn students that you will expect them to justify their reasons for what they pack.
  • In the debrief push the students for these justifications, and you may have to play the devil’s advocate to get them to argue out their justification.
  • Leat, D and McGrane, J. (2000) ‘Diagnostic and formative assessment of students’ thinking’, Teaching Geography, January.
  • Nichols, A. and Kinninment, D. (2001) More Thinking through Geography, London: Chris Kington Publishing.

Layered decision making

This was originally a thinking geography activity and it introduces more complexity into decision making activities so they are more realistic and challenging. Students are provided with the information and make decisions based on this. 

Then further information is introduced that changes the scenario so the decision must be reconsidered. This approached is useful for situations where there are complex or conflicting issues that need to be resolved, so students can be fed the information one stage at a time.

As layered decision making is more complex some students may struggle and need more support. In particular, as more information is introduced there is a risk of cognitive overload and students may have difficulty remembering all the factors involved, so ways to have this easily to hand is important. 

Students will need guidance in how to record information efficiently to help them make decisions. Debriefing needs to take place as you go along so that there is discussion on the first decisions before more complexity is introduced.

  • Avanessian, A. (2008) ‘Layered decision making: coastal protection along the Holderness coast’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021), Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abingdon: Routledge p 81.
  • Enser, M.. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing. Chap 3 Section 6 has an example of decision making.
  • Nichols, A. and Kinninment, D. (2001) More Thinking through Geography, London: Chris Kington Publishing. (Examples: moving house; the consequences of dam construction; a new stadium).


Mysteries are a form of problem solving, developed by David Leat’s Thinking through geography project in the 1990s, that was directly concerned with developing cognitive abilities through geography teaching. Students are provided with a range of ‘clues’ in order to explore possible explanations for a ‘mystery’ in which they have to solve a central question.

Effective mysteries often start by linking two seemingly unconnected elements and this approach helps to introduce a holistic dimension to the geography topic. Mysteries are challenging activities that provide opportunity for students to try out new information against the understanding they already have; this is an important for building schemas.

Students are given 16–30 pieces of information on individual cards and have to work collaboratively in small groups to solve the question. The problem solving in mysteries usually focuses on ‘cause and effect’ or classification. 

Students need to sort relevant information from irrelevant; interpret information; make links between disparate pieces of information; speculate and form hypothesis which they go on to check, refine and explain. The cards enable the statements to be moved about, so they can process and change their ideas.

Mysteries encourage students to deal with ambiguity. They must recognise there is no one right answer. They must determine whether the information on each card is relevant or not. The mystery should be very like real life! 

Ultimately the students should write in detail about the central question and should have some thoughtful geographical explanations. It is important to consolidate learning in this follow up activity and students should be encouraged to tell the story of the mystery and not just to repeat what was on the cards.

How to use mysteries

To create a new mystery from scratch requires a good deal of research and planning and it is best to use an example that has already been developed in the first instance. Check the chosen mystery includes the key concepts and ideas that you want to cover in the unit you are teaching.

Identify the necessary prior understanding that students will need to be able to understand the statements on the cards and the vocabulary. Plan to do some pre-teaching if necessary. 

Provide a good introduction to set the scene and provide the stimulus so that the students want to solve the mystery – they need to be motivated and persistent to puzzle it out or the strategy will not work. Stress the key question for the mystery at the start, and keep coming back to it.

Successful learning from a mystery depends on collaborative working. Students can have strongly held views and there can be dissent in the groups to cope with. Select the groups carefully with this in mind.

You should allow sufficient time for them to work through the problem. Advise students to sort the statements and discard the ones they do not think are relevant, but to keep checking on the discarded ones as they work. Watch out for any groups that are overwhelmed and start to go off task. 

Provide support but do not give them too much ‘help’ and resist the temptation to solve the question for them. When you intervene, aim to trigger their thinking to consider different strategies rather than give them the answers.

Mysteries are an excellent tool for diagnostic and formative assessment. As groups work, observe how students handle the information, listen to their discussions and explanations and read their final product.

Debriefing is an important part of the activity (see Debriefing in geography). Here you will analyse how they approached the tasks and what they found out. It is a good idea to start with feedback from a group with a reasonable, but challengeable, explanation and invite others to comment. Try to keep the ‘answer’ open for as long as you can so you can get discussion and debate to unpick the statements in detail.

When you have discussed the outcomes, move on to discuss how they approached the task. Did their ideas change during the task? How did their group operate? How did they resolve disagreements? (seMetacognition).


  • Atherton, R. (2009) ‘Living with natural processes – physical geography and the human impact on the environment’, in Mitchell, D (ed) Living Geography: Exciting futures for teachers and students. London: Chris Kington Publishing – this chapter contains detailed information and resources for a mystery about flooding, ‘Why is Mrs Wilson having to replace her precious gnome collection?’.
  • Balderstone, D. (ed) (2006) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association, p 324 – ‘What happened to the Singh family and why? (Bangladesh flooding)’. This discusses how mysteries were tailored very successfully to use with students with SEN and shows examples of students’ work.
  • Gillman, R. and Gillman, S. (2016) ‘Using mysteries to develop place knowledge’, Teaching Geography, Spring. – a mystery which focuses on the Ebola crisis and includes on-line materials.
  • Leat, D. (1998) Thinking through geography. London: Chris Kington Publishing (Examples: industrial change in South Wales (this factory has closed); Who is to blame for the Sharpe Point Flats? The lost livestock of Loxley Farm (Y12).
  • Leat, D. and Nichols, A. (1999) Theory into Practice: Mysteries make you think. Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Lyon, J. (2009) ‘Life, death and disease – applied geographical thinking and disease’ in Mitchell, D (ed) Living Geography: Exciting futures for teachers and students. London: Chris Kington Publishing – this chapter contains detailed information and resources for a mystery about disease, ‘Why did Eric Marshall catch measles in 1997?’.
  • Rawding, C. (2015) ‘Marie Antoinette and Heathrow Airport: holistic geographies’, Teaching Geography, Spring. – a mystery involving two different volcanic eruptions makes connections between physical and human processes to teach holistic geographies.
  • Ward, R. (2004) ‘Mind friendly learning in geography’, Teaching Geography, October.
  • Wright, E. (2004) ‘Why did Mrs Windsor vote yes to the Euro?’, Teaching Geography, October.