Enigma Missions

Jennie Vine, Assistant Principal 

How do I wake the giant from its slumber?

Is there a coding or cryptic, mysterious number?

Do I shout or recite, or deliver a test?

I’m not sure in this circumstance which is the best.

The giant seems to lie there, sleeping numerous years

Not a murmur of life, confirming my fears

When will it wake, to see its great call?

Or will it stay silent, boxed in by a wall

I must find the truth and search for the key

Unlock inward greatness, so all fear can flee

Whisper the stories that open its doors

Enable overcoming its intricate flaws

Seek out new pathways and lenses on living

Establish its agency, passion and giving

Rebuild the pathways that have shadowed its eyes

Expose the untruths and fathomless lies

Teach the new skills that will break off the chains

Bringing forth energy and a new set of reigns 

Make it long lasting and infinitely sound

Never to be destroyed or unfairly bound

This is a quest that I must fulfil

For my giant can no longer remain silent and still.

The poem comes from eighteen years of observation on why it’s time to wake up! It’s time for our students to see themselves differently. How do we build in them incredible character and an eternal thirst for learning?  How do we develop them into people who don’t settle for the status quo or content to be passengers passively sitting in the backseat? How do we shift them into becoming people who long to be front seat drivers?

You Are Here! 

The late Stephen Hawking had a motto, “look up at the stars and not at your feet.” One of the drivers for devising Enigma Missions was began with the question of how were we to orientate people towards seeking the truth. 

So here we are on planet earth, but where, we asked the students, was their particular perspective? What did they see? What did they know and understand about reaching for ‘the truth’?  After all, there are endless possibilities. We are the dream makers and all that can be realised.

I often say to students that their positive impact ‘out there’ is not age related. It is rather dependent on their character. Overtime, this is demonstrated through perseverance,  grit and tenacity to be the active citizens they should demand of themselves to be, instead of waiting for someone else to give them ‘the answer’. 

Cognitive Dissonance.

Why might this be a challenge? As human beings we are challenged by cognitive dissonance. As we are wired for comfort and looking for ease, we don’t like moving into cognitive dissonance, that moment of

tension in which our belief is threatened, where we are being asked to shift…most people would rather be back on the passive side. 

This was where I decided to step in and create the uncomfortable. I decided to create learning environments where things would change and students would go from feeling hopeless to feeling incredible hope. I wanted learning to be about rebuilding people  – looking at where they had come from in life, looking at history, culture, anthropology, sociology, psychology and philosophy. All this for the sake of opening the mind to possibilities, no matter where they came from! It doesn’t matter because it’s about activating agency, getting people up, out and into it.

Knowledge Architects

And so the Enigma Missions were basically conceived to look at the mysteries, conundrums and paradoxes of life. They started when our principal was looking at David Thornburg’s work around Knights of Knowledge in which Thornburg created short videos to stimulate kids going on incredible missions. But we found that Thornburg’s videos weren’t enough. So,  we created videos of our own: on paleontology, linguistics, black holes… but videos in themselves still weren’t enough.  

It was at this point that I sat down with a hundred and ten students in Socratic Circle and I started to share information and my learnings from neuroscience on learning effectively. The students loved the videos and what they were hearing me say. All of a sudden the entire floor erupted. I had a colleague on a laptop beside me and she was busily documenting everything. She couldn’t keep up. Hands were going up everywhere… Excuse me! Excuse me! I’ve got this idea I’ve been thinking about…. I was actually interested in the brain… Excuse me ‘Black Holes’ have always interested me!!

Creating Enigma Missions

The principal thought we were planning to start with only seven passion-based projects but that year I facilitated 110 projects. How did I do that? Firstly,  everybody shared in facilitating ‘the mantle of the expert’. I went away and created a rubric, a series of criteria, crucially, I brought in the art of cross-referencing.

Furthermore, having come from a secondary background, I questioned why it was that we thought that students had to be in Year 10 before they thought about a career? What was that practice based on? Limited evidence? Parents you may never have been in the career zones in which their children found themselves? A few excursions? It wasn’t enough!

It was at this moment that I felt I need to enable Years 5 and 6 students to rise up: bring in the Harvard style bibliographies; teach them how to cross-reference; teach them to go along research journeys – some lasting three years.  The purpose of the change was not to end up with a short-term passion project. Instead, it could only come about if there was careful scaffolding, complex questioning that lifts students from right down here to right up there, reaching the pinnacle in which they saw themselves as demonstrating ‘the mantle of  the expert’

 Have no doubt about it,  the decision to go the route of Enigma Missions challenged me because I no longer ‘controlled’ the learning. Instead, I had to work even hard at scaffolding and fashioning experiences in which students were enabled to reach a point the learning had moved into that stickable part of their brain… from short-term to long-term memory.

Literature as a catalyst for research

But it wasn’t enough to just have Enigma Missions standalone.

I introduced another platform –  literature as a catalyst for research. This was where students choose to read and study a meaty – texts that take them into all sorts of areas,  with lenses of past, present and future: areas which excite learner, and hold the potential to connect them into other ‘enigmas’. 

Literature Circles became another form of stimulus. Again, the teacher had to dig deep into the detail of the texts.  Five years ago, we imagined our students digging deep into texts starting with I Am Malala, The Hunger Games, The Giver, The Happiest Refugee, The Power Of One. Each of those books uniquely introducing students to a platter of issues. They were there, along the Enigma Missions. 

But that wasn’t enough either, so I introduced another platform mixing it all into the giant pot. The platform was Learning Symposiums.  This was when things began to really shift. In hindsight I now understand that it wasn’t another just to research. Nor was it enough to just have a brief conversation (with either an educator or a professional out there out in the field or students within your own cohort).  

Learning Symposiums are accountability forums in which students bring their research to a forum.  They have their slides, their presentations, their powerpoints but there are no notes. They present to a multi-age audience made up of professionals, parents, teachers and students – both high school & primary. It is the audience’s job to interrogate the student, so during a presentation and any member of the audience can ask, ‘Excuse me where did you get that information?’ ‘Are you sure that’s accurate?  I’ve seen something different and I beg to differ’. The person making the presentation takes the opportunity to write down areas of their research that need to be reconsidered. They are given a fortnight to make any adjustments. The issues under consideration don’t need to be just about accuracy they can sometimes be about looking at another perspective. They then come back into the Learning Symposium and re-present their information. 

It was amazing to watch students undergoing the Learning Symposium process because I would watch them cross from dealing with knowledge and topics like typical primary-age students maturing into handling concepts like secondary students, and sometimes even wandering into questions only handled at the tertiary level. Because they were liaising and sharing their research with professionals out in the field, something was happening.  Long-term memory was being triggered and phenomenal things began to happen at our school. 

Examples Of Individual Achievement

From telling you something about the elements of what we changed, let me now tell you some stories of what happened to individual students

Melissa’s story

When I first embraced literature as catalyst for research, Melissa came to me and told me she was very keen on researching Mental Health. She had elected to read I Am Malala and was inspired at Malala’s courage and perseverance. Malala’s determined attitude encouraged her to pursue a research project examining Autism. 

In time, I was to discover through personal conversations with her, that she wanted to know about the condition because of her autistic older brother. Due to the fact that her parents worked very long hours, at eleven years of age, she was his primary carer. She would organise his medication, chaperone him on visits to the supermarket, ensuring his general safety and well-being. The teaching staff were unaware of the situation and the enormous pressure this young girl faced everyday of her life. 

It was Melissa’s quest to learn about any medical breakthroughs which might apply to her brother’s condition. She was desperate to help her family. Over the months I watched this student, cross reference complex scholarly articles online, making contact with various doctors to support her findings. Her presentations in Learning Symposiums revealed a depth of knowledge and synthesis, especially under the cross examination of community audience members. She often spoke without notes in her hand, or reliance on visual prompts. Melissa was becoming an expert.

At the end of the first year of researching the topic, Melissa asked me if she could work with the homeless because she believe that mental health was more than likely to be the root cause of homelessness. This was a risky area to tackle but as an educator, I couldn’t help but be emboldened myself by her enthusiasm, her hypothesis and deep thinking. Together, we found an organisation with whom she could work and organised a supervising teacher to assist her visit to various shelters for the homeless. She decided to record interviews on her iPhone. 

What would happen next was nothing more than amazing. Melissa not only interviewed homeless people using sensitive questioning to ascertain the truthfulness behind their predicaments, but also interviewed the charity organisation’s leadership team. She then pulled up her sleeves and decided to assist staff by becoming involved in the preparation and serving of shared meals. 

Perhaps the singular clue that she was viewing the situation through the eyes of ‘only’ an eleven-year-old happened when she returned to school bewilderment and deeply reflective around the experience in which she realised that many homeless people lied! Undeterred still, she then said, “All I know is that I want to get out there now, I want to be a social worker of some sort, I want to make a difference in other people’s lives right now.” 

Experiences like this, mixing research and a depth of insight seemed to spearhead Melissa’s thoughts of a career beyond school.  More than that, they seem to allow her to make connections with society and becoming active citizenship.

To our shock the first sequence of raw footage was lost due to a malfunction with Melissa’s mobile phone.  We tried to fix the problem but couldn’t. So she insisted to go out again and retrieve what she had lost. With determination and perseverance, the same character qualities Malala had displayed, she replicated the experience again, going out with a student team, filming and recording, then editing and sharing her findings. 

My conversations with Melissa were most sophisticated and engaging, a quality which was absolutely evident when the Governor of Victoria came to visit our school and the same student turned around and said to her, ‘I know you have many concerns to address as Governor, but in my opinion your greatest concern should be mental health for these reasons…”. She then went on to elaborate her findings. At this point the Governor turned to her colleagues and said, “How old is this student?” When she was told that the student was only eleven she quickly responded with, “I think you should be working in my office.” 

Was Melissa highly academic? Not particularly but clearly she had achieved far more than academic conventions would tell us she was capable of achieving.

Milo’s story

Here’s another story. Milos was one of our EAL students who had only just arrived from Serbia. He had trouble speaking English, presenting with poor entry skills academically, but appearing to be most inquisitive. Some of the teachers found him quite disruptive, constantly calling out in class or injecting his opinion into other people’s conversations, even when he was politely declined an invitation.

I first developed a stronger relationship with Milos when he elected to become involved in my literature class, studying The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. As the sessions progressed he became more intrigued about Mary Lennox’s life. Milos wanted to understand how Mary had adjusted to a foreign environment with a degree of ease and how her determination to discover the secrets behind the garden wall was caught up with her quest to transform the life of the crippled boy living with her in her new home. She seemed driven to find out the pain behind the screaming she heard him make every night. 

It was Milo’s connections with Mary that were linking him to his own life. He would frequently say to me, “I love this book. Can I talk to you about it?” Milos would follow me everywhere, wanting to have conversations about his learning, desperately trying make sense of everything around him. Many staff found this trait overwhelming and considerably tiring, however, Milos never gave up. It was this persistence that would underpin Milo’s future breakthroughs with learning.

Shortly after, during Learning Symposiums Milos listened to one of our more accomplished students sharing his research on DNA and genetics. Milos was totally engaged in the boy’s expert delivery, his curiosity had been aroused. The whole idea of DNA and the incredible coding operating within our own human bodies enthralled him. It just so happened around this time that I was supervising a lady from the Digital Research Branch of the Department of Education who had started teaching rounds with me. When Milos approached me begging to pursue an Enigma Mission around DNA she looked at me with surprise and reinforced that this was probably not a good idea as he couldn’t decipher complex information and struggled with writing.  

Many of the other staff members agreed with this point of view and felt that the experience would only reinforce his deficits, not his strengths. I had observed this student long enough to believe that his thirst for knowledge was enough to thrust this pursuit forward. Requesting time and patience from staff, I made it perfectly clear that he was going to start an Enigma Mission around DNA, that there would be strategic scaffolding put into place to build competency and capacity. I asked staff to put their beliefs on hold and give me time to prove that this journey was quite possible.

Milos met with me frequently over the coming months, sharing his thinking, his nightly reading and decoding of difficult information.  Using his parents and fellow students as sounding boards, Milos mustered up enough courage to contact professionals in the field who would accelerate his insights. He was desperate to go into combat with the other boy who was studying DNA, he wanted to partner his thinking with his knowledge bank, find the breakthroughs and feel like an expert too. 

What would happen next engaged everyone. Milos had been researching relentlessly and made time to share his thinking with the boy who had been studying for quite some time. As I sat to observe him in the Learning Symposium together with colleagues, including the staff member from the Department of Education, we witnessed Milo’s accurate deliver complex information. 

Milos not only proved that he was capable of completing such a difficult task, but at one stage his unravelling of complex information was even more accurate than the boy who had been studying DNA for a longer period of time. With a laptop in hand to verify the recalling of factual evidence, the truth was exposed. Milos relished every moment and his face epitomised his feeling of accomplishment. I recall the lady from the Department of Education saying,” I would never have believed it unless I saw it.”

Partnership, perseverance, tenacity, strategic questioning and layering had all paid off, creating new beliefs, new pathways of learning for all students and staff, making the impossible, possible.

Logan’s story

My third example deals with Logan, well known as a student who found it difficult to engage with everyday curriculum content. He would often be found roaming around the room not engaging with tasks and saying that everything was boring. 

When Logan arrived in my homeroom we quickly negotiated possibilities. He had expressed an interest in space, so we began structuring research questions to structure the exploration. His energy levels rose and his need to get started became overwhelming. 

Logan began his quest quickly, partnering with NASA and sharing his early breakthroughs in Learning Symposiums, captivating his audience. As his confidence and knowledge grew, Logan’s parents became involved. Logan’s love of space led him to join the Mount Burnett Observatory Club, studying the stars on a Friday night, sharing his passion with adults well beyond his years.  His mum would drive him to the location and wait for him patiently until the session ended, supporting her son’s curiosity. Logan would return on a Monday morning to school only to take over the homeroom in teacher capacity, sharing his discoveries and filmed evidence. The students always eagerly awaited Logan’s weekend deliveries. 

Logan began experimenting scientifically in his parent’s garage, testing hypotheses, filming his breakthrough moments. This would once again find its way into my classroom, where we would all sit back and share in his investigations. Logan quickly gained the attention of all students, who would eagerly hang on his every word. He went on to conduct workshops lasting an hour in length, where I would sit at the back of the class watching him glide through the science curriculum. 

His expertise were advanced and his ability to teach others would put many student teachers to shame. Logan had mastered the art of communicating complex thinking to others using diagrams, charts, stories, filmed evidence, expert knowledge and above all demonstrating his own love of learning. It was difficult to keep the students away from wanting to attend his workshops as they found them so engaging. 

Logan did not require prompting or support structures to carry his content along. All that he had learnt was stored in long term memory, with instant recall. One day Logan’s mother said to me, 

“My son always tells me how you treat him like an adult, that you listen to him intently and how much he enjoys interacting with you.” This has always been a belief of mine stemming from a professor at Melbourne Grammar, who said upon his retirement,” I have only just worked out how to teach students. Treat them all like professors.”

Logan went on to attend a Year 10 Physics class in his grade 6 year, which the Principal helped to set up. His mother would drive him each week to the college where he would sit with year 10 students quite competently, working through tasks. He has continued to pursue his passion into Secondary College, obtaining a position in an accelerated Science program. He has just taken on one physics based university subject in year 8 and has only recently presented his knowledge in Canberra before scientists and large groups of students. His mother has told me that they loved his work and were astounded at how well he communicated, wanting him to return in 2019. He has been a living testimony of passion driven learning and students as experts, defying linear or narrow mindsets of education, pushing the boundaries of what young people are more than capable of achieving.

A Community Celebration – #EDUMEET2017

Logan will be presenting at our own Youth Empowerment Conference this year, presenting in The Drum Theatre in Dandenong, sharing his journey with both Secondary and Primary students from government and private sectors. The conference was instigated by Melissa, the student who Enigma Mission was to research mental health and worked with the homeless and who said ‘You shouldn’t have to pay to be inspired! Isn’t that right Mrs.

Vine? I said ‘Absolutely! Let’s make it happen!’

The Youth Empowerment Conference is about touching the lives of both primary and secondary students.  Nobody pays to go. This was all leveraged just by a simple girl with an idea one day. It’s in its fourth year and it reaches both government and private schools and people come in and volunteer their time. We’ve had the lead scientists of Victoria, we’ve had CEO’s of football clubs, all saying let’s do it.  But these kids have been out on the street, talking to their community and saying ‘Get behind us! Get behind us!’ We want to make this happen. We want Dandenong to be put on the map. We want people to see that we have something to say and we have something to give. This year will be the first year where pass students will be presenting to inspire other students. 

I could give you hundreds and hundreds of stories of where Enigma Missions have just literally taken off like a bushfire. I can’t control it. The students are the ones in charge. They’re the ones navigating their learning.  We’re just sitting there, scaffolding and helping them to become the cross-examiners and questioners through their mission… To rise up and do something amazing out there in the real


The short video that I present now will orientate you towards the world of Enigma Missions further still. 

I know what I’m presenting does demand that as an educator you become a researcher yourself.  You cannot sit in your chair and somehow believe that you’re not on the same research journey with them. The pay-off is that you get to open up and ‘cover’ the curriculum in ways that enable students to become inspired learners with a gigantic thirst for knowledge, way beyond anything you might imagine.  You will have awoken a sleeping giant!

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