As promised, I am illustrating the teaching-learning process through the lens of what students know, do and understand. The planning looks simple and linear but learning is not.
I explained the power of provocations here and also gave several examples. For this inquiry unit, Plant Power, my team and I decided for a setting provocation – we changed all classrooms to resemble different habitats (mine was a rain forest).
The entire classroom resembled a rain forest – vines hanging from the ceiling, leaves and flowers across the desk etc. I also placed books, magnifying glasses, plant-related experimental tools. As expected, it had an extraordinary effect on children – aside from the “Oh!” triggered by the dramatic change, it spurred curiosity about plants – which, you might agree, seems such a “known”, familiar topic as plants are everywhere.
To further increase the curiosity level I hung up or taped bits of information about really interesting plants accompanied by photos – i.e. – “The Baobab tree in Africa is an amazing plant. It can store from 1,000 liters to 120,000 liters of water in its swollen trunk!”
2. Visible Thinking routine: List to Definition
Task a: List all the words that come to your mind when you think of “plants” (individual brainstorming).
Task b: Categorize the words based on affinity (affinity diagram – in groups of four). The students compared their own concept maps on plants, crossed out redundant words, and made up categories (i.e. “leaves”, “roots”, “flower” – they came up with the category of Plant Parts; “shelter”, “food”, “medicine” – they came up with the category of Plant Uses etc).
Task c: Select the most important categories. Come up with a definition for the word “plant”.
As you can notice, the thinking involved is gradually complex – from mere listing to making a judgment about what to include and what to leave out in their definition. Both individual and group work were encouraged so as to avoid “funnel” thinking – too much group work can inhibit original responses.
After each group made their own definition we shared them and together selected the most relevant parts from each. I asked the students to look up the word “plant” in a dictionary, we compared the definitions and had a discussion about these differences.
3. Knowledge Walk
I tweaked the idea of KWL charts to assess students’ prior knowledge – it seemed somewhat prescriptive and, well, boring. I wanted something that involved the class community – what’s the point of writing in your own chart just to be seen/read by the teacher? So I thought of a Knowledge Walk – write everything they know on a simple blank paper, stick it around the classroom, have the other students “walk” in this knowledge-infused environment and react.
Task a: Write everything you know about plants.
Task b: Take a walk around the classroom. Use these punctuation marks to show your reaction.
! (exclamation point) “This is interesting!“/ ? (question mark) What do you mean? / . (period) I already knew this.
This way you not only get a glimpse into individual students’ prior knowledge – data that you can later use as a reference point to evaluate progress, but you can also notice what your whole class knows and what the misconceptions are so you can plan for future lessons. The responses varied from quite general statements (i.e. “Plants need oxygen to live.”) to very specific ones (i.e. “The tomato is not a plant.”, “Strawberries have around 200 seeds.” etc.). The act of sharing this knowledge enabled students, too, to get an idea about what their peers know (that was marked by the period), what they found confusing (the question mark) and what was somewhat unique about their knowledge (marked by the exclamation point). After the “walk” we sat on the carpet and addressed the confusing bits – I gave students the chance to explain what they wrote again (remember, they are 2nd graders and second-language learners so some mistakes occur due to language level).
4. Big Idea
Although I know many teachers post the Central Idea as they start the inquiry unit, I stopped doing so a few years ago. I prefer to challenge students’ thinking first as I never underestimate their capacity to see the big picture. Therefore, I invited my little ones to come up with a sentence that would sum up the point of this inquiry.
*NOTE: I taught them how to “think big” at the beginning of the school year through modelling (in a different inquiry unit) – see below . I used the analogy of a funnel – many details get in and a single big idea comes out. Back then the inquiry was into extreme natural phenomena so I started with a “detail” – “Tornadoes are powerful.”, then asked them to add more – they told me, “Hurricanes destroy houses.”, “Floods can drown people” etc. What came “out” was the big idea: “Weather has an impact on the whole world.” The visual was very powerful in enabling students to “get it” so they practiced later with their own details and big ideas on other topics.
Back to our Plant Power unit. The students thought of really comprehensive ideas and were very close to the actual planned Central Idea (i.e. “Plant help us so we need to take care of them.”, “Plants are very useful to people” etc.). I wrote the CI on a big blank paper, asked the kids to gather around and deconstruct it (see below). Unpacking the CI is critical – you can see what words/concepts students grasp or not (i.e. “What is life-sustaining?”), what initial connections they can make etc. Their thinking and questions are also indicative of how you, as a teacher, should plan for future learning. I always display it on the wall as a way to see how our knowledge changes in time and what questions we still might have throughout the inquiry.
After the tuning-in stage, I had to empower students to move to higher-order thinking by building basic knowledge about plants. Hence, the front-loading step. Do not mistake it though with a teacher-centered approach where I deliver information – knowledge is constructed by watching relevant videos, playing inquiry-related games, reading books and accessing online resources, experimenting and questioning.
In terms of knowledge my focus this second week was on plant parts, processes – photosynthesis, reproduction (pollination, wind), cycle (seed-plant-flower-fruit), plant needs (water, air, soil).
A. Scavenger Hunt
– hide various cards with information about plant parts around the room
– students have a list of questions that correspond to the fact-based cards; complete
– check student learning by asking them to complete the visual (see below)
B. Rank Plant Parts
– ask students to rank various part plants according to their importance (roots, stem etc)
– they bring arguments to support their choice (i.e. “Why do you think the roots are most important? Why not the seed?”) The students thus practice thinking, too – making a choice and then defending it. They confessed it was a challenging task – if they chose, say, the seed, then they had to think about the flower that produces the seed so it was tricky. If they dismissed, say, the stem then how would a plant survive? We shared and graphed our choices quickly so it is not very “neat”.
C. Draw/write in the one-page booklet (see picture) – this reinforces knowledge both through writing as well as through the visual. I got the idea from Pinterest so I added here the original photo, too (right). You might say this is not an “authentic” task but I would like to remind you that these are 7-year-old kids whose first language is NOT English. Acquiring and being able to manipulate specific vocabulary is critical for future learning.
D. Provocative questions:
– Why do you think roots go in length not width?
– Why are leaves so many shapes?
– Why are seeds usually inside the fruit?
– Why do you think most plants are green?
Strategy: passing chips (in a group, each member receives a chip and contributes an idea—-> places the chip in the middle). All these questions were described as “interesting” by the students and it made them “think a lot”. They did find a logic though – i.e. roots go in length so as to absorb water that is down below, seeds are inside the fruit to be protected because the species survival depends on seeds etc.
Online resources were used, too (non-interactive or interactive) so students could expand and test their knowledge – they would access them and write their own notes in their Learning Journals. That allows for differentiation, too – I give many links to students, links that vary in terms of sophistication and difficulty.
This week we also started planting our own seeds. Students have to see the real-life wonders of this world and the growth of a plant is truly a wonder that they experienced.
As a thinking-obsessed teacher that I am, however, I questioned everything they did to model this attitude. An example? Even as they wanted to add the cotton, water and the seed in the cup I asked, “What would you place first – the cotton ball or the seed?” They looked puzzled. Hm, why would she asked that? They obviously never thought about it. Then after several minutes, two ideas emerged: the cotton first and the cotton second. “Why? What made you chose that?“, I asked the first group of kids. “Well, because it’s like when people plant – we need to have the cotton to cover the seed like the soil covers the seeds on the field. The seeds are under the soil.” Pretty reasonable, don’t you think? Whether this works or not it is empirical evidence that needs to be tested – we will see how they will grow. The rest of the kids chose to place the seed on top, motivating that the seed “needs to lay on the ground and absorb water and nutrients. It also needs light so if we put it under the cotton it won’t grow.” Reasonable explanation, too. The level of water was another tricky question – “How much would you pour? How do you know what the best quantity is?” Again, some students chose to add a lot of water because, “I saw the rice fields. The seeds are IN the water.” Who am I do discount their view? Let them learn through observation and experiment. ALWAYS question knowledge and your own experience.
*Through this 2-week activity students practiced their research skills (by observing, collecting , analyzing data etc. in special charts) and questioning skills, too. They would check each other’s plants first thing int he morning and start conversations around the changes they saw – Why is your stem longer? Why is the seed opening up? How does the mini plant come up? etc.
I relied on student-generated answers and had two levels of thinking (I often write down their answers as they give them so they can visualize their thinking, too). They already knew the basic plant needs so level 2 was most interesting – WHY do plants need that? As you can notice, their use of vocabulary has developed, too (i.e. “They need water, H2O, to break down the Oxygen and Hydrogen.” ) sign of their increased confidence and knowledge.
Several experiments were conducted to test these needs for light, water, soil etc. One is below – testing whether water is absorbed through the stem and how it reaches the flower.
A colleague of mine offered to use her powerful microscope and demonstrate with real flowers how this process takes place. Nothing beats a real experience and the kids were completely focused. The demonstration was interrupted by questions (from both kids and the teacher), by “Aha” moments and interesting information. Some students were also invited to act out the process (see photo).
C. So What strategy (domino): Effects of pollination
– modelling with class (students are guided through the thinking process)
– independent work (students are given their own Domino papers; they think of a process and create their own chain of effects)
This is a thinking strategy that encourages students to see the chain effect by asking “So what?” a few times.
B. Frayer model – to reinforce the concept (individual work)
* We also used magnifying glasses and a microscope brought by a kid to see leaf cells in different stages (i.e. green or brown, dry).
This was a way of demonstrating understanding creatively in a quick manner (5 minutes). Basically, the student chooses a concept (i.e. water absorption by the plant) and uses objects and/or body language to illustrate it – the class watches and tries to identify the concept. It is another form of the “exit ticket” that does not rely on the written word – use it when you feel your students have written too much during an activity.
(In the photo below, Grace was showing photosynthesis using markers of different colors.)
Visit to the botanical garden
The visit had a great impact on the students and I cannot stress the importance of linking “scholastic” information with the real world. This was a great learning experience – questions and answers, observations and comments, excitement and amazement would poorly describe it.
A concept needs to be transferred into increasingly larger areas of knowledge. In this case, the students had to understand the relationship between plants and animals.
A. The Deer Game
The students are split into 3 groups: wolves (small group), deer (larger group), plants (the largest group). The “wolves” run after the deer and if they catch them these turn into wolves themselves; the deer run after plants and if they “eat” them these turn into deer. As you can imagine, after a few rounds there were no plants and no deer left. We returned to class and I encouraged students to draw conclusions based on their observations.
If you click on the picture below it will enlarge and then notice how students turned observations into conceptual understandings (and used the very concepts of Function, Change, Causation etc.).
B. Reinforce concept
– The students then chose between different ways to demonstrate this understanding – from simpler food chains (on paper rolls) to more complex ones (where they had to find links between many plants and animals).
I always invite parents or experts to class to share their impressive knowledge and experience in a certain field that is connected to our inquiry units. I e-mail them prior to the inquiry and we set the details of the respective session. In this case, we were fortunate enough to have a boy’s father working for FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and his presentation as well as interaction with the students was amazing both in terms of their engagement but also learning (they would remember things he told them months after this presentation!).
His coming was purposefully planned as it laid the foundation for the most difficult and important aspect of this whole inquiry: understanding of the relationships between plants, animals and people, the struggle for finite resources.
5 Whys strategy – Identifying Cause
This is a thinking strategy that helps students dig deeper into the cause of an event/phenomenon/situation by asking “Why?” 5 times. Unfortunately, the photo was lost but I kept records of what students answered. An example: “People cut trees.” – Why? – “Because they need paper and other things made out of wood.” – Why? – “Because it helps them have a better life.” etc.
*I have an older picture from another inquiry unit to illustrate the strategy.
Cause and Effects of Deforestation – Brainstorming
The students brainstormed the effects deforestation has and you can tell they understood the concept of CONNECTION and CAUSATION very well:
CAUSES – Cities get bigger. More factories are built. People need the land for crops. Domestic animals need to graze. etc
EFFECTS – The air is polluted. Floods can happen (the soil erodes because there are no more plant roots to keep it in place). The water cycle is disturbed because leaves produce evapo-transpiration. The food chain is disturbed because animals and people need plants. Landslides can happen. Hunger and poverty would be in the world. etc.
(You might not be impressed, but hey…these are 2nd graders. Did you think like this where you were 7?…)
PERSPECTIVE – Tug of War
To encourage students to see an issue from different perspectives I always engage them in thinking from a different point of view. Circle of Viewpoints, I Am… and other strategies can be used. In this case, however, I used the Tug of War activity as the problem of deforestation is a global one and the kids tend to rush into judgment very soon.
A. As in the real tug of war, two ideas “pull” in opposite directions and each student has to support, with arguments, their view. I posted a statement on the whiteboard (“Trees need to be cut because we need the wood.”) and asked students to place their names at one end (agree/disagree). After each was read and the arguments were shared, the students began (as expected) to rethink their position and add nuance to heir thinking – surely it is easy to disagree about deforestation, but just look around you and see how many things you are ready to give up (paper, furniture etc.).
B. Farmers vs. Government
It is hard for youngsters to actually support in a debate a point of view that is not, ethically and emotionally, theirs so this was very challenging (because kids love nature and trees so they would instantly side with the groups protecting them). I split the class in two opposite groups: the farmers and the government (in other units of inquiry this is a large circle – i.e. the artist, the journalist, the historian, the politician, the customer etc).
They had to justify their position and then debate which side is “right”. It was difficult and the students, again, understood that very rarely, if ever, things are black and white in the real life (i.e. the farmers *do* need the land to survive and they are generally poor people).
Understanding differences in perspective enables students to grasp complexity, to refine their reactions, to be more aware of “the other”. It is something that we, as adults, should practice more, too…
We moved on. It is important to gain perspective, but still the issue of deforestation remains. Solutions are needed so the kids engaged in thinking. Buzzing with ideas they started commenting on each one as they were shared before class – is it sustainable? does it cost much? who would implement it? etc.
Obviously, alongside these whole class activities, individual inquiries took place. The students had their own questions, researched, organized their notes, created their own diagrams and charts, and prepared presentations for other students. It was the first time we thought of challenging their presentation skills so we set up the final presentations in an Exhibition-like setting: all grade two classes adjusted their timetable so ALL students could visit ALL classes. The challenge was met with great enthusiasm and the students proudly presented their inquiry results while learning a lot from the others. The effort they made was unbelievable – not only did they work hard on their projects (posters, booklets, iPad slideshows etc.) but brought many items related to their research (i.e. cocoa nuts, seeds, medicine, art objects made out of the respective plant etc.) and engaged their audience through interesting quizzes, question cards etc. Many students even designed outfits to go with their inquiry (i.e. a student who researched about the Banyan tree that grows in India wore an Indian shawl; the student who researched on roses designed his own “rose” hat etc.).
The focus however was on the process of inquiry – how they developed their questions, how they connected them to broad concepts, how they manipulated acquired knowledge to refine further research.
As a conclusion, I think the differences between what students know, do and understand can be a good start to refine one’s planning process. The backward design – thinking from what you want students to eventually grasp in terms of both facts and concepts – helps teachers focus and eliminate unnecessary, busy activities.