prov·o·ca·tion  (prv-kshn) n.

1. The act of provoking or inciting.
2. Something that provokes.
Our brain needs it. To engage. To learn. To remember.
In an inquiry-centered environment learning provocations abound. They motivate, sustain, invite to future wonder.
The recipe? Confusion, strong reaction, interest. One or more.
What are some ways to put that into practice in a classroom?
1. Photos
Because they are worth a thousand words.
Use various strategies:
I See / I Think / I Wonder
Silent Conversation
Musical Tables etc.
There are millions of photos available that can be used in inquiry on various concepts – poverty, conflict, power, gender, multiculturalism, pollution – basically anything and everything.
Where is this beautiful city with skyscrapers? I bet you wouldn’t have guessed – nor did the students.
It is in Africa, more exactly Congo. Who would have known since we are usually presented *this* (below)?
Power of photography. Change thinking. Change perception. Change feelings.
2. Photos and writing
I always use high quality photographs and add intriguing, confusing, or simply powerful words. If they are copyrighted I use them in class only. Have I told you I hate Clipart and I use only real-life photos with the kiddos? Try it. It makes all the difference in the world.
3.  Posters
Whenever I use posters I am looking for simplicity…even minimalism “because it eliminates the obvious and adds the meaningful”.
If it is a controversial issue or one that can be viewed from multiple perspectives I always bring forth one side of the story, let children react (through post-its, drawings, verbally), and only afterwards present them the other viewpoint. That creates a stronger tension because they are forced to re-view their first impression.
4. Videos
Need I say how important they are in triggering thought and emotion? I guess not.
When I select videos I am looking for image quality, music (if any), and time. The shorter, the better. Also, I prefer videos where the meaning is grasped at the end so the students’ expectations rise.
Watch this one to see what I mean.



Yes, plain quotes on plain paper. The impact can be astounding if you add other tricks (i.e. reveal it slowly, play music, write it on a huge paper and place it on the door or an unexpected yet visible location, cut it in pieces and add each piece one at a time etc).

 “The more we have,

the less we are.”

(I used it in a unit on resources – needs vs wants, consumerism)

Powerful quotes are everywhere on the internet now so…it just takes time to find the ones that suit your lesson target.

6. Provocative statements

These depend on the topic you invite your students to inquire into. One way to make them provocative is to present a biased view (see below). Other ways are changing intentionally some key-words, twisting the meaning etc.


Provocative statements can be made or found in math, art, music, geography…basically anything.

7. Artifacts 

From old to weird objects, artifacts are a sure way to trigger curiosity.

Use questions (“What am I? What am I used for? Who might need me?…) or sentence stems around them (“My question about this object is…/ I think this is…/The most unusual thing about this…”).

Also, you can use everyday objects to stir curiosity. From a paper clip to a shoe you can use any object that might help you get kids’ synapses work faster.

8. Dress-up

I am not sure how many would go for this one but it is a great way to get students react (especially the little ones, like my 2nd graders).

Are you teaching about water life? Get a scuba dive outfit. Just imagine the children’s faces and…questions! when you enter the classroom.

Teaching adjectives? Dress up! Get a wig, hat, colorful boots…anything that would invite to thinking about adjectives. I did so and soon the students covered me with post-its – I was a human adjective from the top of my head to my shoes!

9. Change setting

That means either change the classroom setting itself or go somewhere else to teach.

Our next inquiry unit is on plants as life-sustaining elements. I am turning the classroom into a rain forest, I brought a microscope, a root-viewing window box and more to get the kids wonder.

If you decide for a complete change, your provocative lesson can start in a museum, a botanical garden, a shop – depending on your focus.

10. Music

Music is an incredibly powerful resource and, in my opinion, rarely used. If you combine it with good questioning strategies it can drive an entire learning experience. I used it, for instance, to inquire into self-expression and played different songs without saying a word. I just showed the students post-its with the outline of a heart and they wrote how they felt each time the music changed. That led later on to questions like, “Why do you think you felt that way?” , “Why does another classmate feel differently about it?” etc.

11. Maps and  statistics

Use maps and statistics that can tell something very powerful about your topic.

From most polluted cities to where famous inventors or writers were born, maps and statistics can provide a different insight into the topic. Online resources abound and they can be interactive and interesting, but I also like to use huge maps that can be placed on the floor so the children can gather around them, and add their questions or “Aha!” moments using post-its.

12. Role-play

I haven’t tried this one yet, but I will. 

An example I know is two teachers fighting in front of the children. They would get “angry”, shout at each other – you know, the entire argument on display. The children were surprised, if not shocked. It was a provocation for learning about being “caring” and showing “respect”, two elements of the Student Profile that the PYP schools promote.


Some of you may say that they teach Math and what I wrote can hardly inspire them. Not true. As I tweeted a few days ago, any of the above strategy can be used in any subject (my example was the Fibonacci video as a provocation for understanding patterns and their connection to real-life).


As mentioned before, certain “tricks” enhance the power of a provocation. Whether it is the timing, size (of font, of object), sound, place, surprising end (of a video) – anything helps.

P.S. OK, and I am not happy with WordPress because it does not allow for embedding Scribd documents, MP3s and more like Posterous did.

P.S.2 Here is another way I used a provocation for an inquiry into maps and orientation. Each provocation was hidden inside increasingly smaller envelopes so that the engagement would rise – the students could not move on to the next until the answered the first one.