Why do you think that? What do you think would happen if…? I noticed you did it this way, what made you think that was a good way to start? What made you try it differently the next time? Your classmate used a different strategy; do you think her answer will be different?
Kids love questions. While asking or answering them, the students become fully engaged in a process that contrasts with teacher presentation of facts and knowledge. This form of active learning, also referred to as inquiry-based learning, is the way real science seeks to advance understanding.
Whether in science as we typically think of it, or in any discipline, the process of inquiry encourages children to formulate questions, test them out, think about what happened, and come up with new questions and approaches. Inquiry-based learning at Free Union may look somewhat different across the grades, but the goals are the same: to encourage children through experience to build on what they know, to think independently, and to construct new meaning.
Born of student interest, the “Friday Challenge” is something students eagerly undertake. Recently, I presented them with the note-card challenge―small groups each received a stack of 100 note cards and had to plan and then work together to build the tallest structure possible using only those materials. Importantly, we spent some time before getting the cards talking about what experience we had with them, how they differed from “normal” paper, etc., and then brainstormed and agreed upon criteria for a “successful” freestanding structure. The excitement was palpable and whispers had already begun among group members about their ideas. As soon as I set them off to work, I overheard one group talking about how they thought triangles were the strongest shape with which to build; another group immediately began folding, without any clear plan or division of labor; another group came to me to present their plan and asked for my input. Moments like this are when it’s especially tempting for any guiding adult to pontificate, but kids will learn more if we volley back into their court. So I deflected: “Hmmm, it sounds like you’ve got a plan. Why don’t you go ahead and test it out and I’ll be over in a few minutes to see how you’re doing.”
As I circulated, I refrained from giving too many suggestions and instead asked questions that encouraged the students to be flexible in their thinking. Though the groups didn’t do it at the same rate, each gradually and naturally moved toward a division of labor where some children folded the cards and some stacked them. Groups that had been enamored of accordion folding realized through trial and error that, while beautiful, accordions did not make the strongest supports. Groups realized that the more time they spent on a stable base, the taller their structure could become. And finally, they realized that there would be a point at which every structure would collapse and they had to figure out how to face that disappointment and deal with that frustration.
The challenge itself isn’t new, but the learning that happened was deep, meaningful, and lasting. In fact, it’s still happening weeks later, since they ask me at least once a week if they can get the notecards out and try again. To me, the absolute key to a great inquiry experience is taking the time for a thorough debrief at the end of the initial session. Even more than during the actual experience, this is when true learning happens as the students listen to one another, compliment and are constructively critical of each other, and, whether they say it out loud or not, start planning how they would do things differently next time. As we debriefed this challenge, my students said some of the following:
"This was kind of hard because when you're a kid your body has so much energy so putting the cards on carefully made us really work to control our bodies."
"As the structures got taller they got wobblier so it was kind of hard to know when to stop."
"Everyone wanted the tallest building and that was hard for my group so we decided to just make it sturdy by using different [folded] shapes. What was hard was agreeing on the design."
"It was a challenge to figure out who does what. We figured out that one of us liked to fold and the other liked to stack so we did that and it worked great!"
"We tried a couple of ways and it didn't work, it kept falling. Then we discovered something that seemed really stable and it worked."
"In my group we decided that first we would fold all the cards we needed and then we would stack together."
"Our building fell a bunch of times but I decided to just say "oh no!" and then keep right on building."
“We weren’t doing very well. Then we saw one of the other groups making a tall structure so fast, so we decided to try the shapes they were using. It worked!”
As Free Union teachers, we give our students the framework within which learning takes place. We listen to our students’ interests and provide them with relevant provocations; we equip them with the skills and factual knowledge that they can apply to new situations; and we facilitate opportunities for students to fail and to correct their own misconceptions, finding this a much more powerful teaching tool than simply giving them the “right” answer.
My hope is that by answering questions and crafting follow-up questions, our students will develop that all-important trait of intellectual grit that will serve them here and beyond. After all, they are the future.