By First Graders
the March/April 2000 issue (vol. 13, Issue 4) of Connect,
a publication of Synergy
into a classroom buzzing with scientific activity. You see children
working in small groups on the floor, at tables, in all parts of
the room. Heads are bent together in deeply-focused observation
or discussion. The language meaningful, occasionally punctuated
by the thrill of discovery, "Oh, that's so interesting!" When asked
what they are doing, children say: "I'm trying to see if this big
ball can knock the blocks down," or, "I want to see which ball
can roll the farthest," or, "I wonder if I can make the ball go
up the ramp."
These are first
graders independently exploring the laws of physics, or, as they
experience it, experimenting with balls and ramps. While many educators
may be doubtful that children as young as five or six years old
have enough background knowledge, skills, stamina, or initiative
to engage in independent investigations in science, I have found
that they can and will, with great success.
In my first year
doing inquiry in a kindergarten classroom, I focused on my own
role as facilitator. I was interested in learning how to guide
my students' work and was trying to determine how much to offer
into their activities (both materials and advice). After first
concentrating on modeling the process skills of inquiry (observing,
questioning, interpreting, etc.), I set out this year to use inquiry
to teach content, and find ways to assess it.
Getting to know the materials
In my first-grade
class this year, we began by getting acquainted with the materials
and phenomena in a "Balls and Ramps" kit. During this unstructured
exploration time, children discovered interesting aspects of how
things worked, and their natural interests were sparked. They also
formed theories from which questions would later arise.
At first, the
class was presented with balls of various sizes and weights, as
well as pieces of cardboard, toilet paper rolls, scissors, and
tape. The students made roads for their balls. I purposefully did
not talk about inclines. Yet, as they worked in pairs, they all
designed their own, "hills in their roads." Some experimented with
roller coasters, sending their balls not only downhill, but uphill
as well. Though they did not yet have the vocabulary to describe
what was happening, they were dedicated to making those balls move
up and down.
As a group, we
took a walk around the room to view the various roads everyone
had made, and began to notice differences and similarities. Students
shared results of how their balls traveled.
After the students
experienced and reflected upon the concept of the "incline," I
introduced the formal term to them. Because they had already discovered
it for themselves, they were able to understand the concept better
than if I had showed it to them initially. This gave them a sense
of ownership over their discovery.
Because I consider
reflection a critical component of inquiry, I asked students to
draw and write about their experiments. In drawing and writing,
students can look back on what they thought occurred and why. In
this case, students were instructed, for homework, to draw the
road they had created, show how the ball moved, and write a sentence
describing this. The following day we used the homework papers
to remind us of our experiences with the balls and roads. The students¯ work
provided various models for recording data.
learning to ask questions
After my students
discovered the concept of the incline, we looked at ways to create
different inclines by changing the angle of a board. As we worked,
I modeled questioning for the class by asking: "I wonder what will
happen if I roll my ball down this ramp?" "I wonder what will happen
if I hold the ramp up higher?"
I asked students
to try rolling balls on different ramps and observe what happened.
It was not important that a particular angle of incline be used,
or a particular ball, or even a particular sequence of actions.
The pairs of students chose their work space, devised their own
ways in which to hold up the board, determined their own pacing,
and voiced their own "wonders." Some students went beyond the directed
focus, trying out two ramps in a V-shape, rolling a ball down one
and watching it roll up the other.
a ramp structure
activities, we again came back to the whole group to review. By
this time, the children had had enough experience with the materials
to focus on some very reasonable
"wondering" for further exploration. I wrote down their "I Wonder" ideas
on chart paper to remind us of what we were thinking.
mini-investigations were done in three parts: "I wonder . . ." "My
plan . . ." and "I Found Out . . ." We started by reviewing the
activities of the previous day. The "I wonder" questions that I
had modeled for them received a lot of response from the group.
As I expected, they practiced their own "I wonder . . ." questions,
thus following through on my modeling. Children began to expect
to discover answers to their own questions. The process of investigation
became meaningful because the ownership came from student work,
not from a worksheet created for them.
With the knowledge
the students had acquired through their free explorations, and
with the ability to come up with questions that could reasonably
be tested, the children were now ready to move forward with their
own mini-investigations. After a warm-up brainstorming session,
the children were asked to write their questions by following the: "I
wonder . . ." template. We used these questions to identify small
groups of students with similar interests.
were interested in speed, others in distance, and still others
in the force of the rolling ball hitting another object. Next,
each group made a plan to answer their "I wonder . . ." question.
The plans were explained out loud before the groups began their
as a group helped the individual children clearly articulate their
own plans. The children experienced pride in knowing the distinction
between playing and doing a planned investigation. At the end of
the period, the students drew and wrote what they found out in
their explorations using the "I found out . . ." prompt. This template
delineated expectations and helped children reflect upon their
investigations. In reviewing these papers with the children, I
celebrated their successes, or worked with them to redefine their
question or think about other plans.
years of examining my role in facilitating an inquiry-based science
unit, I have learned that teacher modeling of the processes of
inquiry is the most crucial element.
given ample opportunity to freely explore the materials, the students
will either continue to "play around" or begin to study and work
on meaningful discoveries. What separates true inquiry from play
are the processes of observing and questioning, and then developing
and following a plan of action. This process leads to more inquiries
that are progressively more focused and meaningful.
gives the children a sense of what is reasonable to ask, given
the constraints of materials available and location in or out of
the classroom. Making plans helps students to see ways in which
they can use their prior knowledge to seek answers to their questions.
Following through with a plan demonstrates the expectation that
we really do want to find answers, and that it is possible to do
so. The students¯ belief in this expectation results in better
observing, better questioning, and better inquiry practice overall.
As the facilitator
I have found that I am able to guide the direction of the students'
investigation toward the discoveries of specific content matter.
If I want my students to understand that a rolling ball can be
a force upon another object which would cause that object to move,
I can position a block at the bottom of my ramp and ask, "I wonder
what will happen to the block when I roll my ball down the ramp?" Content
learning is not accidental in this process. It lies in the carefully
guided modeling and questioning of the teacher/facilitator.
is a 1st grade teacher at Ulloa Elementary School in San Francisco,
to post this issue of Connect granted by Synergy
Learning International, Inc.
San Francisco, CA 94123