By Cari Newman and Jennifer Hannah, Fourth-Fifth Grade Teachers
High Meadows teachers love the idea of children exploring their world and finding out how it works. But many people wonder how our inquiry-based approach translates to content-rich subjects like science, history, and math, especially for older children. How do we know that they are getting the content they need? Visit any Fourth-Fifth Grade classroom while we’re working on our Unit of Inquiry, and you’ll quickly observe how we know.
Our current unit focuses on physics, specifically forces, the laws of motion, and energy. This material is arguably some of the most challenging scientific content our students have ever encountered. As teachers we wondered, “What would happen if students weren’t just empowered to DO experiments with physics, but to DESIGN experiments in physics?”
For our recent study on friction, we asked the students to work with a partner to read about friction, take notes and digest the information. Then, using only materials at hand (wooden blocks, marbles, stones and whatever seemed useful around the room), students picked one aspect of friction to explore and test. Some students tested friction by rolling a smooth marble and a marble wrapped in bumpy paper down the same ramp to see which went faster. Others slid a wooden block down a slick plastic surface, and then slid the same block down a wooden ramp tilted at the same angle. One group demonstrated friction by sliding a heavy box filled with classroom supplies and quickly discovered the difference between static and sliding friction. It was astounding to see how each partnership envisioned and then tested friction in a slightly different way. It was clear to us that in designing their own experiments, students were partaking in the messy and important critical thinking work that is the heart and soul of scientific discovery. At the end of the class period, it was remarkable to witness how empowered they were to present their understandings to each other.
We have repeated this kind of experimentation several times, and our students discovered that designing demonstrations is tricky business. Sometimes our attempts led to more questions which beg further investigation. And it is here–in this not knowing, these moments of confusion–that the real learning truly begins.