Inquiring into Inquiry

By Eve Pranis

What do kids really understand about plants? What are their misconceptions? How can teachers do a better job of helping kids wrestle with ideas and build an understanding of how plants grow, thrive, and interact with their environments?

With an eye toward grappling with questions like these, five first to fifth grade teachers and a university educator from East Lansing, MI, have been meeting weekly in a science study group. Together, they designed ways to find out what kids know and want to know, then discussed how each might help students pursue productive investigations. Participating teachers tried out strategies in their classrooms, then had an opportunity to reflect on and share experiences with colleagues.

"We agreed to try to incorporate several components into our work with students," reports participating teacher, Sharon Henrickson: "to listen intently to students' ideas and questions and, when possible, use their ideas as springboards for continuing investigations; to notice students' science "talk" as they struggle with and form their ideas; and to try to act more as facilitators or guides than directors of learning," she continues. The group decided to require all students to keep science journals, documenting their observations, investigations, questions, and reflections.

Laying the Groundwork: What Do Students Know?

To find out what their students already understood about plants, the teachers used a variety of age-appropriate strategies. For instance, first and second grade teacher Sharon Henricksen first asked her students to draw everything they know about plants. "I learned a lot about their ideas from this exercise," says Sharon. "Most students drew plants with flowers attached, but didn't reveal any understanding of fruits or even seeds," she adds.

Meanwhile, Carol Shank's second graders brainstormed what they knew about plants as the first step in creating a "KWL" chart (what I know, what I want to know, what I've learned). Again, she found that students had a general sense that plants need water and light, but very little understanding beyond that. "In fact, some of my kids seemed to have the misconception that the life cycle ends with the mature plant," says Carol. "And in discussing what they knew, there was a big debate about whether flowers have any relationship to fruits," she adds.

In another variation, fifth grade teacher Ann Wesley presented her students with a section of a log, then asked them to draw and label pictures that explain how a seed becomes a log. "Although I would have thought this was a concept the kids had learned in earlier grades, they really couldn't explain the process," notes Ann.

Explorations, From Seed to Seed

With an eye toward helping students examine the "first step" in plant life cycles, the teachers initiated a six-week unit by encouraging students to explore and dissect lima beans and other seeds, then listened as students pondered their experiences. "My second graders weren't sure what they were looking at inside the lima bean," says Carol Shank. "As they looked repeatedly and explored a range of other seeds, they began to notice similarities and have richer questions," she adds. Carol's students spent many weeks exploring the question, What is a seed? First they discovered different parts, then dicussed what their functions might be. Some tried "planting" different seed parts in plastic baggies with moist paper towels, then hung them on the board to observe. "After many trials, my students concluded that a half bean seed with what appeared to be a baby plant attached seemed to grow the best," explains Pat. Students kept journals and the class held regular science talks to discuss their observations, share questions and ideas, and decide how else they might gather information to answer questions.

To enable students to see full life cycles, most of the teachers had students plant Wisconsin FastPlant seeds (available from Carolina Biological Supply) in classroom GrowLabs. As the yellow flowers emerged after only 15 days, students speculated about the role of flowers, explored how bees transfer pollen, then discovered that the resulting pods contained the same kinds of seeds they'd started with. This "aha" lead to more investigations to verify their findings about life cycles: pulling and planting seeds from old sunflower heads, dissecting and examining pumpkins and other fruits, and so on. "After three months of fairly intensive investigations and discussions, they seemed to have a much stronger grasp of the seed to seed cycle," says Sharon.

Science Talks: Making Connections

The teachers involved in this study group were committed to helping kids think, act, and discuss their ideas like scientists. "Before a weekly science talk, students would ponder one teacher- or student-generated question such as What do you think flowers are for?" reports Sharon. Students first reflected on the questions and wrote their own thoughts in journals. Then the class sat in a circle to share ideas. Students were encouraged to respectfully listen, then respond to, and agree or disagree with others by giving their own rationale (e.g., I agree with what Mary said about trees, because I also noticed x). "When our discussions yielded discrepancies or lingering questions, (What were those little pods on the mustard plants?), we would ask what we could do to test our ideas or otherwise find the answer," notes Sharon. "We might follow up with more active investigations, or checking ideas with resources," she explains.

The teachers concurred that students discovered that science involves a lot of trial and error, but their curiosity was sustained because their ideas and suggestions were valued. "'We've always done activity-based science, but now I've added in an element that really forces scientific thinking: conversation," says Carol. "By asking students what they think is happening, what they've observed, and so on, I've prompted them to think more like scientists. It's challenging at times to bite my tongue and let students struggle with ideas or pursue misleading directions. But it's been powerful for them to have their ideas listened to, and to suggest the next steps in their own learning," she adds.

"They've become much keener observers of the world around them," says third grade teacher Pat Christensen. She reports that she herself didn't have a firm idea of how plants progressed from seed to seed. "As we investigated, I saw my job as following their lead rather than leading to a correct answer, and we all learned a lot about doing and learning science in the process," she explains.

Assessing Gains

Participating teachers had different methods for assessing students and helping them identify what they'd learned. Upper grade students, for instance, are writing a class book about plants for kindergarten students. "In order to create the book, students have had to ask themselves what they know about characteristics of living things, and be sure they can verify it," says university science educator, Deb Smith. Sharon asked her students to create a fan fold book, starting with a seed taped to the first page. "I asked students to tell the story of the seed becoming a plant and was surprised how well they depicted emerging roots and leaves, a progression in size, flowering, fruiting and seed production," she explains.

Collaborating Colleagues

"I hadn't previously been comfortable letting students follow their own curiosity," says Pat. But I found it easier to shift my practice after sharing experiences with a supportive group and seeing how strategies worked for different ages," she adds. Other participants echoed this sentiment, explaining that exchanging with a group of colleagues helped them through a difficult, but rewarding process. "It's a struggle to listen to kids, then try to orchestrate experiences to enhance their understanding rather than just move through a syllabus," explains Carol. "We tend to think we should have all the answers, but don't focus on how kids really come to know and learn," she adds. "This group has been a great support."

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