By Kristine Scharaldi
A third-grader, Sam, is sitting at his desk during a science lesson while his teacher stands in the front of the classroom showing a PowerPoint presentation about different types of clouds.
After 15 minutes, the teacher asks if anyone has questions. Nobody raises his or her hand. The teacher reaches for a jar of popsicle sticks, each with a student’s name on it.
Sam sits anxiously, hoping his name isn’t selected. “Sam!” the teacher announces, “What does a cumulonimbus cloud look like?” Filled with stress from being put on the spot, Sam is silent and shrugs his shoulders, not able to formulate a response quickly enough to accurately answer the question. Another student speaks up, provides the correct answer, and the lesson continues.
Why wasn’t Sam able to answer the question? Would he be considered a shy student, or an inattentive one? There are likely a number of reasons to explain why Sam couldn’t answer the question. Most importantly, does the way the teacher conducted the lesson affect Sam’s level of understanding?
We can design learning experiences that offer all students, shy or outgoing, more opportunities to be engaged and curious in the classroom and take control of their learning. Below are five strategies that encourage inquiry-based learning and provide ways for all students to be actively involved in the classroom and throughout a unit of study.
1. Start with What Students Know
When starting a new unit, ask students to think about the topic and have them share what they already know. They can share virtually, on a piece of paper or by talking in a small group. Using the cloud lesson from above as an example, students could draw pictures of different clouds they’ve seen or experiences they’ve had, relating the concept to their personal knowledge and memories.
Then encourage students to wonder about the topic. Their ideas will lead them to ask questions and become curious about why different clouds look different. This approach puts students in the center of the learning and offers opportunities for every child to feel included. Studies show that people learn better when they’re curious, so use student questions to guide lessons—start where the students show interest and then lead them into the new content.
2. Guide Students on Individual Learning Paths
Using leveled reading, personal interest and the right tools, teachers can support students in navigating through their own curiosities. Websites like Kids Discover Online and Newsela help facilitate inquiry-based learning while giving students the freedom to explore new content for themselves.
Let’s use our third-grader Sam for an example: The teacher can post an article about “A Sky Full of Clouds” as a starting point. The site leads him to click on a related article about atmosphere. After that, he thinks about space and follows a link to the related article, “Weather Satellites and Other Instruments.” Sam is able to lead his own investigation and make learning discoveries within a safe and supported environment.
3. Make Time for Reflection
Much of the school day is fast-paced and highly stimulating, allowing little downtime for students to reflect and ponder new concepts. Slowing the pace to include a few moments of quiet reflection time after each lesson is extremely important for all students, but especially for introverts and shy students. While the classic phrase, “Does anyone have any questions?” after a lesson may seem helpful, many students often need more time to think or are too timid to raise their hand to ask questions out loud.
4. Create “Exit Tickets”
I recommend that teachers incorporate exit tickets so all students have the opportunity to write, draw or virtually submit something memorable they learned during the lesson, as well as what they are still wondering or confused about. This is a great way to build in quiet reflection time and evaluate each student’s understanding of the new content. Addressing questions during the first part of class the next day lets students know you care about their inquiries.
5. Use Technology Tools to Extend Learning Opportunities
Having a dedicated online space to share ideas, questions and thoughts available both during and after class time makes it possible for teachers to foster a community of learners. I suggest using web-based tools such as Padlet, Google Classroom or your learning management system as a platform where students can post questions, seek responses, and have conversations about content both in and out of school. Using digital communication and message boards can get the entire class involved in group conversation and collaboration at a level that each student is comfortable with.
By incorporating these types of tools and strategies to drive learning through inquiry, teachers should never again have to “call on” students to participate using popsicle sticks. Moving towards student-centered learning design provides many opportunities for children to be involved in ways that feel good to them.
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Kristine Scharaldi, a former elementary educator and tech integration specialist, is now an educational consultant and professional development provider. Follow her on Twitter: @kscharaldi.
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