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Lessons from Professor Snowman - Inquiry Based Learning

Lessons from Professor Snowman

Inquiry learning focuses on the idea that the learner generates their own questions about the world and the teacher guides them in the search to find the answers. Being keen to listening for these questions (a.k.a. learning opportunities) is part of a teacher, mentor or parents' job.

My son has really wanted to build a snowman ever since the first snowfall in early November. The problem was it was too cold. Not too cold for us to be outside, but too cold for the snow to stick together. He wanted to know why.

Now my son is just shy of 3 years old. We aren't going to go really deep with this, but there are some ways we can work to develop an understanding of the concepts which answer this question. Inquiry is about the learner discovering, not about the teacher telling. The solution to this problem won't be found in a day, in fact, for this particular inquiry he won't know the real root of the answer for years. Knowledge builds and spirals on itself.

We start off by simply applying a very basic scientific method approach. Each day we look at the thermometer and I read the temperature to him. I ask him how cold it feels outside. Warm, chilly, cold, really cold or freezing? Then we try to make a snowball and discuss the texture and weight of the snow. Is it light and fluffy or heavy and clumpy. Does it stick together or fall apart? I wait to see if he draws any conclusions... it is a pretty sophisticated concept for a toddler to correlate temperature with snow conditions, but we're building the blocks for better understanding later.

With my 6th grade students we would start at a very different place. They will be able to read the thermometer themselves, for starters, but they quickly, if they haven't already in their lives, correlated temperature with snow conditions, especially if they are into skiing which many kids in this region are. Though with my particular group skiing is a luxury their families can't afford. They do however have prior knowledge to draw from, having years of snowball fighting and snowman building experience. They should also have some understanding of states of matter. Now we can start to deepen their comprehension of the concepts at play here. Having really worked with my students on how to use references they can start research in the library and the internet. They can also start to conduct experiments: recording data and observations. Date, time, temperature, snow quality. Eventually between research, experimentation, and a little guidance they are able to conclude that there exist subtleties between states of matter. You don't just go directly from water to a solid block of ice. There are shades of grey in between. Some of the kids have discovered through their research how the molecular structure of water changes. This is when I see if I could get a local expert in. The University of Alaska, Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University are right here - a wealth of resources for any educator. I seek out a glaciologist and bring her in to help us put all the pieces together.

There are many extensions and culminating ways you can use to put this new found understanding to use and allow the students to apply their knowledge and for teachers and parents to assess the accuracy of the information gained:

  • Have students keep a journal recording their daily investigations, research or experiments. Journals are a great way to tap into many different intelligences, as Howard Gardner would say. Students who are visual can draw and map out their findings while students who are very literal can do more writing. 
  • A great cumulative way to prove their understanding of their path to discovery is to create a flow chart, mapping their way from their starting point - the question to their conclusion.
  • The best test of what a student has learned is if they are able to explain the concept acquired in their own words - a wonderful way to do this is to explain the process to a younger audience. I often have my 6th grade students write stories or lead experiments for their 2nd grade reading buddies. Younger siblings are a great audience too.

As we all know everyone learns differently, not everyone of my students is going to understand the true molecular differnces between snow at -20 degrees and snow at 31 degrees, but their understanding will be deeper and broader than it was before. Their understanding will stick with them and translate into many other realms because they led the inquiry and were not told the answer. They will have the tools to seek answers and solutions when teachers or parents are no longer in constant eye sight.

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Comment by Alina Stefanescu Coryell on January 18, 2012 at 5:21pm

Beautiful and inspiring. Thank you.

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