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What Is That Thing? A Lesson on Group Dynamics


--World History
-Language Arts
-21st Century Skills



Brief Description

In this exercise, students attempt to discern the purpose of mysterious objects, and in the process, learn about group dynamics and strategies that can make group work more efficient and effective.


Students will build team skills and understanding of group dynamics by thinking creatively and critically, as a group, to come to an agreement as to the origin and purpose of one of science’s most mysterious objects. Students gain 21st Century skills including social responsibility, teamwork, and the ability to present one's ideas confidently.


History, Language Arts, team building, group dynamics, group roles

Materials Needed

  • Brief descriptions of mysterious artifacts (provided)
  • Images of mysterious artifacts (to be accessed from Google Images)
  • Equipment for visual display of images (PowerPoint, Smartboard, etc.)
  • Pencils, pens, paper (or student access to word processing)
  • Large paper and markers (if desired) for students to make visuals to enhance their presentations
  • Student access to PowerPoint (if desired) for students to make visuals to enhance their presentations

Lesson Plan

This week-long exercise helps students understand group dynamics, group roles and teamwork. The exercise is broken down into five class-period activities. Begin by randomly assigning each student to one of 5 groups (4-6 kids per group, depending on the size of class). The exercise will work better if students are working with others whom they do not know well.

In advance of the lesson, it is recommended that teachers select a few clear and compelling images of each artifact (easily accessed via Google Images), then bookmark them so that they can be displayed electronically for the whole class. Each group of students should receive only a brief historical background (below) and a few images of the artifact. Students should not have access to additional information about the artifact, beyond what appears below.

The Voynich Manuscript
The Voynich manuscript is an ancient book that has thwarted all attempts at deciphering its contents. It is an organized book with a consistent script, discernible organization and detailed illustrations. It appears to be a real language—just one that nobody has seen before. The words appear to mean something, but nobody knows what, despite expert military code-breakers, cryptographers, mathematicians, linguists, and people who get paid to find and decipher patterns, all taking a crack at it.

The Antikythera Mechanism
The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient, intricate machine found in a shipwreck near Greece that dates back to about 100 B.C. The Antikythera mechanism contains gears and structures that were not found in devices again for 1,000 years. First, no one can agree on where the Antikythera mechanism was made or who designed it. Popular belief was that it was made by the Greeks because documents found with the device are written in Greek. Despite this, there is a strong belief that it was made in Italy.

The mechanism is thought to have been used to figure out astronomical positions. The problem is that at the time it was made, no one had yet discovered laws of gravity or how celestial bodies moved. In short, the Antikythera mechanism appears to have functions that no one alive at that time would have understood, and no single mechanical purpose of that era explains the machine’s vast number of functions and settings.

The Baigong Pipes
In an area of China not known to ever contain people, there are three mysterious triangular openings on top of a mountain containing hundreds of ancient rusty iron pipes of unknown origin. Some of the pipes go deep into the mountain, while others go into a nearby salt water lake. There are more pipes in the lake, and more still running along the lake shore. Some of the larger pipes are 40 cm in diameter, are of uniform size and are placed in what seems like purposeful patterns. The mystery emerges when you consider that scientists have successfully dated the pipes to a time before people were casting iron. This, combined with the fact that they are clean of debris, suggests that they were laid for some purpose in an area of China in which people never lived.

The Baghdad Batteries
The Baghdad Batteries are a series of artifacts found in the area of Mesopotamia dating from the early centuries A.D. When archaeologists stumbled upon the batteries, they assumed they were just regular old clay pots used for storage, but that theory was quickly abandoned when they found that each pot contained a copper rod showing evidence of acid corrosion. This means that the pots probably contained a liquid that would interact with the copper and produce an electrical charge. If true, they predate the first known modern battery by hundreds of years. The obvious question here is “Why would a society that did not possess electrical devices need an electrical battery?”

Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument located in the English county of Wiltshire, about 2 miles west of Amesbury and 8 miles north of Salisbury. One of the most famous sites in the world, Stonehenge is composed of a circular setting of large standing stones set within earthworks. Stonehenge was produced by a culture that left no written records. Many aspects of Stonehenge remain the subject of debate. This abundance of theories is often referred to as the “mystery of Stonehenge."

Day 1

Explain to students that scientists must do quite a bit of work before the full stories of ancient “found objects” are known. Accordingly, there remain several discovered artifacts that continue to mystify scientists as to their origin and purpose. Assign each group of students to one of the five “strange discoveries.” They must brainstorm, discuss and come to consensus regarding the following:

  • Who created the object/device (what were their cultures, occupations, roles, etc.)
  • What purpose it was meant to serve
  • How it worked at the time it was created
  • Whether it could serve some useful purpose today (if so, where and how)

NOTE: Students may need to complete this group task as homework, or teachers may want to set aside an additional class period.

Day 2

Each group presents its findings to the whole class using a written response to the above questions, oral presentation, and if desired, visuals and demonstrations.

Afterward, each group talks about the process it went through in order to come to consensus. (On subsequent days the class will learn about and discusses group dynamics.)

Day 3

Explain to students that people often take on different roles when they participate in a group that is trying to complete an open-ended, creative, frustrating, challenging and/or ambiguous task. Roles fall into one of three categories: task-oriented, social and individualistic.

Talk with your group for a few minutes and try to identify who in the group may have taken on a task-oriented, social or individualistic role. Share with the whole class.

  1. Did the different roles work together effectively? Were there overrepresented, underrepresented, or absent roles? How did this impact the group’s functioning? Why is balancing different types of roles important in a group?
  2. Did a single “leader” or multiple group leaders emerge? Are different types of leaders needed in a group? If so, what kind?
  3. Did conflict emerge? How was this handled? Was the group happy with the outcome? What could have been done to prevent this conflict, or handle it better? 
  4. Did people take on roles that were “typical” for them, given their personalities, or did the task allow them to play a role they wouldn’t normally play? What was a role you would have liked to play, but didn’t? What role will you try in your next group project that you didn’t get a chance to try with this task?
  5. Did some people “abstain” from participation altogether? How does lack of some group members’ participation (their voice not being heard) impact the group’s outcome? How will you make sure your voice is heard in the next group project? How will you make sure that others’ voices are heard?

Day 4

Discuss with students techniques to enhance group effectiveness:

Day 5

Individually, students write brief summaries about what they learned about themselves as a leader and group member, and about group dynamics in general. They indicate their strengths and areas for growth, and identify the roles and group-management techniques they will try in the future to ensure that their group functions efficiently and effectively.


Students’ presentations are evaluated in terms of the following:

  • Evidence of teamwork and participation
  • Presentation skills
  • Creativity

Students’ written summaries are evaluated in terms of the following:

  • Writing quality
  • Evidence of learning about one’s leadership style, strengths, and areas for growth
  • Evidence of learning about group dynamics
  • Ability to identify roles and strategies that can enhance group functioning

Submitted By

Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor

National Standards
NSS-WH.5-12.6 World History
NSS-WH.5-12.7 World History
NSS-WH.5-12.8 World History

Language Arts
Grades K-12
NL-ENG.K-12.1 Language Arts
NL-ENG.K-12.4 Language Arts
NL-ENG.K-12.6 Language Arts
NL-ENG.K-12.9 Language Arts
NL-ENG.K-12.10 Language Arts
NL-ENG.K-12.12 Language Arts

Additional Standards
American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Standards for the 21st Century Learner
3.2.1 - Demonstrate leadership and confidence by presenting ideas to others in both formal and informal situations.
3.2.2  - Show social responsibility by participating actively with others in learning situations and by contributing questions and ideas during group discussions.
3.2.3  - Demonstrate teamwork by working productively with others.

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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