Using Armchair Treasure Hunts to Teach Research Skills: A Few Thoughts

As I confessed in my last regular post, I am a big fan of armchair treasure hunts. Even though I have had to step away from active involvement over the last few months due to the book and other projects, to say nothing of the current situation’s impact on travel, I’ve sunk quite a bit of time into the Fenn treasure and The Secret in the past two years. As a historian, I have also wondered about the potential applications for armchair treasure hunts in teaching research skills in an exciting and unusual way. ATHs might even be helpful for parents or teachers looking for ways to keep students engaged at a distance during the quarantine–a point which I had not considered when I originally wrote out most of this post a few weeks ago–since much of the early legwork can be done online from one’s armchair (or a similarly comfortable piece of furniture).

I hope to someday flesh these points out in greater detail–perhaps for a conference presentation or short thinkpiece–but for now, here are my initial thoughts on the potential strengths and weaknesses of teaching with ATHs.

 

Adrien_karbowsky,_poltrona,_parigi_1912-13_ca

(“Armchair by Adrien Karbowsky, 1912-1913, Musée d’Orsay (Paris)” by Sailko is licensed under CC BY 3.0.)

 

PROS

  • ATHs can be great ways to teach and learn local history. This observation will apply more to hunts, such as Byron Preiss’s The Secret, which are tied to particular cities or locales, but it could be true for others as well. My experiences in working on the New Orleans Secret treasure led me down innumerable rabbit holes of local and state history, teaching me about major events in NOLA’s past (such as the 1929 streetcar strike) and longer trends and patterns (such as the origins of the Garden District) of life in the city. Admittedly, the search did a better job of leading me to trivia than it did of providing deeper historical context, but it was educational all the same, and it gave me a basic working knowledge of the city that will be helpful if I ever pursue a relevant research project in the future.
  • ATHs encourage participants to think critically about how landscapes change over time. Again, this is probably more applicable to older hunts (such as The Secret) which have been going on for years or even decades, but solving clues and locating treasures often requires competitors to recreate the historical settings experienced by the puzzle creators years earlier. Whether through development or decay, landscapes–especially those populated by human beings–are constantly changing, and even just a few years can be long enough to render otherwise straightforward puzzle clues obsolete. Rewinding the clock, so to speak, is sometimes the only way to make sense of those hints.
  • ATHs require the integration of an unusual combination of research skills. In the couple of years that I worked on the Fenn and Secret treasures, I found myself searching the library stacks for reference works; conducting online research to track down clues; contacting archivists for assistance and materials; participating in online discussion communities; perusing historical maps; using photo editing software to search for hidden details in images; and innumerable other tasks. Research training projects organized around an end goal–say, finding a treasure–could help students understand the holistic, interconnected nature of historical research, which often requires physically traveling to dusty archives and reading a variety of sources in creative ways to suss out details that others may have missed, along with “soft skills” such as applying for funding or requesting help from a librarian or archivist.

 

CONS

  • Unless a student happens to find a/the treasure, evaluating the quality of their research could be difficult. A teacher could always set related goals to help measure student progress–finding a certain number of relevant sources, demonstrating capacities with a certain program or piece of software, etc.–but ultimately, finding treasure is the only way to 100% confirm that a student was on the right track. Given how infrequently ATHs are solved relative to the size of the community, this could be an issue unless you have designed your own mini-hunt (more on that below).
  • ATH online communities vary widely in terms of friendliness and openness to newcomers, and you may not want or need your students to spend time on forums, anyway. Most of my experiences in engaging with fellow searchers online have been positive, but of course, it only takes one or two trolls in an online community to detract from the experiences of all involved. The risks would be even greater if younger students were involved.
  • Travel costs and time expenditures could be prohibitive if the treasure is not in your immediate area. Having students fly halfway across the country to traipse around the woods is likely a non-starter for many reasons anyway, but even shorter day trips or afternoon/weekend outings could simply take too much time and money to make them worthwhile relative to the potential benefits.

 

A Potential Solution

Despite the downsides listed above, I do still think that ATHs could be effective and engaging ways to teach research skills, and I believe that teachers and professors might be able to avoid most of the dangers and costs by developing their own mini-hunts tied to the school campus or immediate area. While this would likely require a larger expenditure of time up front, it would allow students to stay in familiar territory while also introducing them to elements of local history that they might not otherwise have an opportunity to study. Too, it would reduce or eliminate the potential hazard of having students participate in online discussion forums (since all hunt participants would be in the class), and students could still team up or be assigned partners to help split the research and legwork.

If you’ve ever used treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, or similar endeavors to teach research skills, I would love to hear about your experiences, good, bad, or indifferent. While I have not had an opportunity to try an ATH out in a history course, I do like to take my in-person classes on walking field trips around campus to illustrate how local histories connect to major themes from our courses, and I would think that ATHs could offer similar benefits. Let me know what you think!

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