Using a treasure hunt to teach ‘sequence, selection and variables’

Dr. Ahmed Kharrufa

Dr. Ahmed Kharrufa is the Director of Reflective Thinking and a Research Associate of Newcastle University. His interests lie in exploring the ways technology can support collaborative learning and he has created a tool called Digital Mysteries as a result. It started off with Professor David Leat’s paper tool Mysteries, which was then digitally transformed. This involves problem-solving tasks to boost group work skills, higher level thinking and project based learning. He is an advocate of unique multi-mouse technology which allows multiple students to each have their own mouse and cursor on the screen.

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My to-do list during the summer holidays included preparing a number of collaborative problem-solving tasks (mysteries) for the new computing at schools (CAS) curriculum, KS2 and KS3. With my programming background, I focused on the computing science bit rather than information technology or digital literacy.

While the guidance on most programming-related topics explains how they can be covered with programming tools such as Scratch or other languages, it’s not as straight forward if you want to explain the concepts without such a tool. I wanted to approach computing science from a slightly different angle – in terms of how to present the problems and making content more specific to the new curriculum.

A deductive approach to gaining knowledge

The thing I found most useful about these tasks was that it’s easier to introduce new problems through first using well-known concepts that students feel comfortable about. When something is familiar, they get on with the task and enjoy solving it, but only later are told how it is relevant to a certain point of the computing science curriculum. This more often than not leads to the very useful ‘aha’ moment in learning.

Anyway, after spending (more than I would like to admit) time thinking about the curriculum topics and brainstorming with my colleagues, I ended up with 6 tasks in total; 3 for KS2 and 3 for KS3. In this post, I wanted to share what we, very proudly, came up with to cover the topics of sequence, selection, and working with variables.

The treasure hunt

What better way is there to explain following a sequence of instructions than to do a virtual treasure hunt? Give students a treasure map with a set of instructions, and you are guaranteed to get their attention!

In this treasure hunt, the students are told they have been given a bag with a number of marbles, and while following a sequence of instructions (given to them as unsorted slips of information), they are asked to either collect more marbles in the bag, or give marbles to others throughout their journey. The bag of marbles represents a variable. The selection bit of the hunt, which involves deciding where to go at different cross-roads on the map, depends on the number of marbles in the bag at the time of reaching them. So students need to follow the sequence correctly, make the right changes to the variable (bag of marbles), and make the right choices in the cross roads in order to end up at the correct treasure.


However, we wanted to have a bit of flexibility in the task; avoid having only one path and therefore only one correct location for the treasure. That’s why, with the help of a 9 year old, we ended up having 3 different characters to choose from. Depending on what treasure each one needs, the students will go down a different route.

The choice of character also determines the initial number of marbles in the bag, thus leading to different choices at the crossroads in order to end at the right treasure. We designed the mystery so that it helps the students self-assess whether they are following the instructions correctly or not. They will only get to the correct treasure if they have the right number of marbles in the bag, so students will know if they’ve made a mistake, and if so, they can go through the path again to find out where they went wrong.

Children’s feedback

We pilot-tested this mystery with three children: my 7 year old daughter (with a lot of help), a colleague’s nephew who is 9 years old and who got carried away in giving us more scenarios and maps, and my 13 year old daughter. They were all fully engaged with the hunt, and many of the ideas in the final mystery were based on their feedback. Having a map works wonders we learned: it seems to be more useful to engagement than we expected.

Relating a treasure hunt to computing science

After doing such a fun task, it becomes very easy to explain to the students what a sequence is, how the bag represents a variable (with the number of marbles being its value), and how the value of the variable can be used to make selections. This type of task, which initially looks completely unrelated to the CAS curriculum, makes explaining such a concept so much easier than doing so straight away in front of a programming tool. We’ve used a similar approach with the rest of the topics but that’s the subject of another blog post.

While challenging, and time consuming, I did find the process enjoyable and the feedback we received from the three kids who tried the different tasks was very positive.

Have you ever used treasure hunts in your lessons? Let us know in the comments below.

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