Will This Work?
Inquiry-based learning: Instead of just presenting the facts, use questions, problems, and scenarios to help students learn through their own agency and investigation. – Edutopia
A highlight of my week was a visit to a third grade classroom during a science block. It’s important to note that my visit took place during the last half-hour of the last school day of the week. One might think that during the final 30 minutes before school lets out for the weekend, students and teachers are beginning to turn their focus to the two days of rest and relaxation ahead. When I walked into this classroom, however, I found a class buzzing with learning and excitement.
Equipped with simple circuit boards made up of batteries and wires as well as a basket of supplies such as pencils, paperclips and even small stuffed animals, students were challenged to make closed circuits that resulted in a small lightbulb glowing or a mini-fan blowing. Through their investigations, they were to determine which materials are conductors of electric currents and which are insulators.
As I walked around the room and leaned in to small groups of students, it was quite obvious that they clearly understood the task, were able to use relevant vocabulary, and were beginning to make generalizations about their findings. For example, when I asked a pair of students what they were learning about, one replied, “We have to find out what are good conductors of electricity. We found out that the binder clip is. We think it’s because it’s metal. Now we’re going to try the paperclip.”
I asked if the mini stuffed shark might be a conductor. One student said no because it wasn’t made of metal. The other said, “Are you sure? Maybe it does! Let’s try it!” When the shark did not complete the circuit and the lightbulb didn’t light up, I asked why it hadn’t worked. The answer? “Because it’s a… a… what is it… insulator! That’s the word! That means it doesn’t let the electricity through.”
As students explored and investigated, the teacher and instructional assistant guided students’ learning with open-ended questions. They would ask, “Why do you think that will work?” “What could you do to find out?” “How is that material the same or different from other materials you have tried?” “What else could you try to see if your idea is correct?” And when students had their own questions, rather than providing answers they were encouraged to discover the answers themselves.
What a masterful example of inquiry-based learning this experience was for the students. And what a masterful example it was of how rich learning can take place right to the very last minute of a long school week.
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