A teacher was doing an experiment with his students where he held a cup of water up high with a string trailing down to the second cup lower and to the side of the first cup. As seen in the video:
The teacher asked his students to describe what was happening with the water and why it was able to go from one cup to the other without spilling onto the table.
“Newton’s third law!”
He just kept shaking his head saying, “Nope. Nope. Don’t think so complex. Just tell me what’s happening.”
And then a quiet student in the back chimes in,
“The water is sticking to the string as it travels from one cup to the next.”
She described what was happening. The teacher wasn’t looking for the scientific terms for what the water was doing or how it was happening, he was looking for an explanation. The water was simply sticking to the string.
They observed, they took it in, they learned, and the lesson moved forward.
Later in their readings when they came upon the definitions of adhesion and cohesion, each student made the instant connection to the water “sticking” to the string in the earlier experiment.
Science can quickly become a list of definitions to memorize, there is a whole new language out there of scientific jargon that can easily turn into a class of “learn new vocabulary” instead of “learn about science.”
But if you want kids to know science, to really internalize it and get excited about what science has to offer, let the definitions come later.
Introduce them to the world of plants and animals, chemical and physical changes, rocks and clouds, and stars and chemicals. And then when they’re excited and see the world change and create in front of their eyes, taking in everything going on, then give them the word to describe it.
Toddlers don’t learn what grass is by looking at a picture in a book and saying, “That’s grass!” repeatedly. They learn what grass is by sitting in it. Feeling it. Probably taste-testing it. And then hearing their caregiver say to them, “The grass is so soft! Don’t eat the grass, yucky! Do you like the grass?”
Let’s change science classes from memorizing definitions and writing out vocabulary sheets into watching, seeing, observing, and getting excited about what science can offer. And then once they’re ready for the definitions, let those come with time. And they will come if you give them that time.
Winter solstice is upon us! Is it something you celebrate or give recognition to in your classroom? If you don’t, you should start! It’s a great time to teach kids a little more science, culture, and history. Here are a few videos you can use in your classroom to give some background context on what winter solstice is.
To bring culture into the equation, here’s a cool video put out by CBS on Ask An Elder.
Overall, the celebration of the winter solstice is based on an appreciation for the winter season. This means lighting Yule logs, sipping on hot cocoa or cider, and enjoying a candlelit evening during the darkest night of the year.
These are all activities you can incorporate in your classroom, or even in your home! A simple (battery-operated) candlelit lunch in the classroom is an easy, doable activity that can make a big impact on your students.
A Yule log craft can also be a great conversation starter.
You can bring Stonehenge into play as well by diving deep into how it relates to the winter solstice and maybe even work as a class or in small groups to build a replica.
A simple walk outside to take in the winter air and point out things everyone appreciates about winter can teach them the importance of winter solstice as well.
Winter solstice celebrations focus so much on light because it’s the darkest day of the year. Creating paper lanterns, making or sharing candles, or putting together candle crafts is a great way to celebrate.
In college, I took a course called “Teaching Science” where we spent class time creating our own scientific journals and carrying out experiments that our teacher created and that we created ourselves. While these were happening, discussions happened of how we can apply this to teaching our students about science, and how we can incorporate science into different aspects of our curriculum such as writing or math in order to see more of it in our school year.
My professor for the course was truly one of my favorite professors throughout my entire college career. He reiterated over and over as often as possible that the goal with science was to be so influential that students picked it up and continued to use the scientific method on their own, beyond school. He told us that if we were teaching science correctly, students would be excited by the subject and want to know more, their learning would go well beyond the walls of the school.
While I respected him greatly as a teacher, I never believed that I could be the type of science teacher to instill this in my own students. My emphasis for my degree was in language arts, and I had a hard time choosing between that and reading. Math and science were so far off of my radar. I knew it was something I would have to teach, but science wasn’t a subject I saw myself being so excited about that it shone through to my students.
One day in class we were studying our long term science experiment, a flower we had planted. A colleague of mine brought up a childhood story of her sister and herself planting popcorn kernels made for air popping in their sandbox, and how they would grow tall enough that their mom would rip them out of the sand. My professor looked at us with a confused look and told us this was impossible. He said that the popcorn kernels we buy from the grocery store is processed and wouldn’t grow in soil, let alone sand. He claimed she must have been given corn seeds or some other type of seed because having any result from popcorn kernels was not possible.
Maybe it was the stubbornness in me, maybe it was my growing love for science, but whatever it was, there was a burning fire in me to prove him wrong. That night I went home and found a bag of popcorn kernels in my pantry, planted them in a pot of soil, and left them in the kitchen window. I didn’t tell him about it at first, because obviously I wasn’t about to be embarrassed if he was right and the popcorn seeds didn’t yield anything. Days and weeks went by with no sign of improvement, but I continued to water them and wait for the day they grew into something.
One day I woke up to one little green leaf sticking out of the soil, it was incredible! It was actually working! I continued to take care of my plants until they grew bigger and stronger, strong enough to take a trip up to campus with me during my class.
I walked into class that day holding my pot of popcorn seeds that had turned into real plants with the biggest smile on my face. I plopped it down on my professor’s desk and after he looked down at the plant, he looked up at me waiting for an explanation of what this was and why it was on his desk.
“You told us popcorn kernels wouldn’t grow anything, you claimed that they were processed enough that they wouldn’t turn into anything when planted. Well, here you are, this is what happens when you plant popcorn kernels.”
Immediately his eyes lit up and I distinctly remember him jumping up out of his chair in excitement. I was waiting for his praise on what a great plant caretaker I was and how right I was. I was also waiting to hear those precious words come out of his mouth, I was wrong. But that’s not what happened next.
“You get it! You did it! You see what I’m saying now, this is genuine science, this is the ultimate goal as a teacher! You wanted answers about popcorn kernels and instead of going to the internet or accepting my answer, you conducted an experiment using the scientific method yourself! You did it!”
At the time I was somewhat dissatisfied with his reaction, I wanted him to admit how wrong he was. But later on, when I looked back, I realized the full impact of what had happened. He knew from the beginning that popcorn kernels would grow, he just wanted to test us. He wanted someone to prove him wrong all along, and that ended up being me.
That semester I may have planted popcorn kernels, but a seed was also planted inside of me. A seed that helped me understand why we teach science and how we teach it. I grew up thinking science was memorizing vocabulary and mixing vinegar with baking soda once in a while, but now I know that teaching science has evolved into inquiry and wonder of the world around us, how it works, and why it works the way it does and putting it to the test when we want to understand something deeper.
It took until my senior year of my undergrad education before I could grasp this concept, so my only hope is that I can inspire students to learn it much younger than I did and to plant the seed in them as well.
Inquiry-based learning has become more of a common practice throughout schools. It encourages asking questions, thinking deeper, and applying the material to personal lives. Inquiry-based learning is flexible because the student is the leader for where the conversation and learning leads. It can have higher engagement because the student can take the material where they want it to go.
This type of learning is so beneficial in some studies. However, are there times when inquiry-based isn’t best? What are the parameters for inquiry-based versus direct instruction?
Teamwork and group projects are where inquiry-based flourishes, students can collaborate, ask questions, and use the skills developed in inquiry learning to look deeper into the subject.
Science lessons based on experiment and discovering new ideas is also a great platform for inquiry.
Discussions on subjects are where inquiry-based can blossom. Promoting questions with long or different answers can assist in deeper inquiry, instead of direct, one-word answer questions.
However, are there times inquiry-based learning isn’t the best way? Where does direct instruction fit into the school day? Here is a great rule of thumb- throw out inquiry-based as soon as you see a student struggling. It’s important to note that struggle is good when using inquiry because it can lead to more learning breakthroughs for the student. The struggle that causes red flags is the kids who are constantly struggling, the kids on a lower reading level than their peers, or the ones who cannot seem to grasp the concept enough to participate in these discussions. This is where direct instruction needs to happen.
Imagine a struggling child who is constantly poked and prodded with questions about letters and sounds in order for them to inquire more about it, eventually leading to them knowing what the letter names and sounds are. If they are already behind, more inquiring isn’t going to help them. It’s a powerful tool to directly tell them what something is and how it functions over and over until it clicks. Once they can grasp this complex concept, they can continue to move up and work on each concept until eventually, they can participate in inquiry discussions.
Sometimes, kids don’t need more questions, they just need direct information.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge advocate for inquiry-based learning, and plan to write more on the subject matter. But I am also an advocate for doing what is best for the student.
What is your rule of thumb for direct versus inquiry learning?