By Carole Wright
Fifth-grade science is a cornucopia of topics spilling into the minds of eager scientists.
In my first year inspiring this age group, I breezed through life science and earth science topics, thrilled to share my personal passions and interests.
Upon encountering the topic of astronomy, which I was only moderately enthusiastic about, I struggled with settling on a method by which I could teach the topic. I hesitate to admit that I selected what I initially thought was a quick and easy path to mastering a basic understanding of our solar system, planets, stars, black holes and more.
I set my students on a virtual journey to complete a table with basic fact questions. They wound their way through outstanding online resources including Kids Discover Online, which provided extremely helpful resources geared perfectly to the level of my students.
On the second day of our fairly basic activity, the students were generating fascinating questions about the material they were reading online. I quickly recognized an opportunity and tapped into the enthusiasm that was bubbling into our science classroom. We had stumbled together onto the first step in what turned out to be one of my most successful and meaningful teaching experiences.
The details of the process are extensive, but by following the quick outline below, any educator can mold this student-driven approach into an experience that can fit any grade level, topic, unit or project. Using these steps, students studied self-selected astronomy topics, completed individual research projects and presented an astronomy night to our school community.
1) The Hook
Introduce your topic of study by developing a table, chart or quick questionnaire. Questions should be relatively simple to answer and designed to maximize student contact with multiple websites and pages within websites. Exposure to the topic is the main goal.
2) A Second Look
Following the completion of The Hook, ask students to return to the website of their choice and formulate five questions that they have about the topic. The questions do not need to be answered. Although it will be challenging, teachers should allow students to explore sub-topics and ideas that interest them. This could take cultivation on the part of the teacher.
Students select the main question that they find the most intriguing. From that question, they should brainstorm further questions and ideas. Eventually, this will be the topic question for research and for a final project. Younger students will need guidance in this step.
4) Teacher Conference and Refining Research
With a main question selected, students meet individually with the teacher to share their focus question. This face-to-face time allows the teacher to ask additional questions and check for progress, understanding and focus. Students should leave this conference with their main topic for research and for a project. It is a time-consuming step, but extremely valuable.
5) Peer Conference
With a topic selected, pairs of students meet to exchange ideas and assist each other in developing project concepts within the parameters of a rubric of expectations provided by the teacher.
6) Project Work
This step is a return to traditional report-writing or project creation. Expectations should be generalized to accommodate what should be a wide variety of topics selected by the students. Rubrics should hone in on research skills, writing technique, enthusiasm for the topic, etc.
7) Sharing Topics in the Classroom
Students can present projects or research papers to the classroom in a variety of ways. The key here is to allow the students to be their topic’s expert. Use the “gallery walk” technique for peer learning and peer evaluation.
8) Sharing Topics with the Community
Allow the topic to travel beyond the classroom and into the greater school community. At the close of the project in your classroom, ask students how they envision sharing their knowledge and interest—and challenge them to do exactly that. This authenticates their learning. They must select what is relevant and important about what they have learned or experienced.
9) Evaluation and Assessment
The final step in the entire process is a formal evaluation. Allow students to evaluate their own learning and the process itself.
The first time I implemented this process in my classroom, it was unintentional. The key to its success then and now was using the natural curiosity of students that can be kindled by so many fabulous online resources available to educators. Allow students to click and discover, at first within parameters you define and then with more freedom. In my opinion, inquiry in any classroom is most effective when it is led by students rather than the educator.
Using this basic framework for exploration, students can explore a topic and find what piece of that topic they connect with best. I strongly suggest using this technique to introduce a unit or major topic. In my example, the meat of astronomy content delivery was made following completion of the projects, and student engagement was at an all-time high.
For more, see:
- 5 Ways to Encourage Inquiry-Based Learning
- 3 Ways to Teach Everything Through Inquiry
- 25 Next Gen Tools for the Inquiry Classroom
Carole Wright is a K–8 science teacher at Valley School of Ligonier (PA). Follow her on twitter @cjpvermont
Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.