A long-term investigation prompted by some humble potatoes confirmed for first grade teacher Carol Flicker of Herndon, VA, how her students' learning and abilities could unfold when she let their curiosity guide their inquiries.
Some sprouting potatoes under her counter caught Carol's eye as good material for exploration and discovery. "When I brought them to school and explained that the eyes were like seeds from which new potatoes grow, the students were intrigued, excited, and eager to share their ideas about to how to plant the potato seed pieces," reports Carol. "I just followed their lead," she adds.
In response to the children's interest, Carol brought in clear plastic containers and soil, then gave students plenty of time and encouragement to try out their planting ideas. The kid-inspired techniques included placing potatoes in soil and leaving them in a dark cupboard, freezing them, and planting them in water. Although few students put the seed potatoes in moist soil and left them in a sunny spot, Carol withheld these "conventional" planting directions so students could puzzle things out themselves. She gave them ample time and guidance to record their experiments, theories, and observations in individual potato journals. At class science meetings, children discussed what was happening with their investigations and compiled their observations on a class chart. "These often lead to further investigations," says Carol. "For instance, when one girl noticed her potato had gotten hard and theorized that it was because the water had evaporated, it prompted some investigations of water evaporation," she explains.
"Within a month, most of the plants had died or never sprouted," explains Carol. But rather than resign themselves to "failure," the class tried some problem solving. They brainstormed why the potatoes may not have grown, suggesting that they may have been too cold or overwatered, for instance. The one student whose plant was thriving revealed the conditions of her experiment, and her classmates took careful notes. "We also read excerpts from a potato book, which detailed how to plant potatoes from pieces," says Carol. Armed with this information and new sprouting potatoes from a parent, the students were eager to try again.
"The second time, students were determined to make their experiments work, so they reread directions from the book and worked in pairs to control the amount of water and planting depth," says Carol. Although many students still left potatoes in the dark, a few placed them in the light. Throughout the long-term investigation, she let students grapple with ideas and problems that arose, and come up with solutions on their own. For instance, as the plants outgrew the 12-inch rulers students had selected, they sought other measurement tools, finally settling on more flexible cloth tape measures. At one class meeting, reports Carol, students noted that while all plants had sprouted, those that had been in the light had green sprouts, and theorized that potatoes must need light to remain healthy.
"After discussing and sharing their experiments and theories at subsequent meetings, students would observe their peers' setups and tend to their own, then spend time writing in their journals," says Carol. "Over time, their entries of observations and comparisons became more accurate and informative and helped me assess their skills and plan for future lessons," she notes.
Although students enjoyed watching the potato root systems through the clear plastic containers, they decided it was time to transplant their sprouts to large plastic buckets when the roots reached the bottom. "Even as the buckets got heavier and plants taller, the children insisted on carting them to our class meetings, and eventually, home," reports Carol. The passion for potatoes continued to build throughout the year and beyond. Students were intrigued as they dug up small potatoes from plants at school and home. Curiosity about their own potatoes and questions about other types of potatoes inspired new investigations. Parents, other teachers, and visitors came by to see the bucket-grown potatoes they'd heard so much about. What started as a simple student-directed exploration of these humble tubers evolved into a longterm investigation that incorporated skills and concepts across the disciplines.
"At one point during the project, I had called the Extension Service to ask about growing potatoes indoors in containers and they said it couldn't be done," notes Carol. But that didn't phase her students! They saw themselves as scientists conducting and learning from their own experiments.
"I feel that the key to this long-term inquiry's success was giving my students the time to observe their plants, try out and discuss their ideas, ask questions, and allow their interests and skills to develop naturally," reports Carol. "Once I lay the groundwork on how to think and act like a scientist, I listen carefully to what the children say and what interests them, then provide guidance and materials to help them. At first it was difficult to give up some of my control and let the children's interest guide our days, but I am convinced this is what made the difference," she explains. "I take my cues from their interests, and join in their inquiries rather than control the curriculum."
This story is based on a conversation with Carol and excerpts from her chapter in the book Beyond the Science Kit, edited by Wendy Saul and Jeanne Reardon, 1996, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.