What does it really look like in the classroom when a teacher is supporting student inquiry with plants? In developing a visual library of effective teaching strategies, we videotaped progressive segments of a four-week-long potato inquiry in classrooms at the Indianapolis, IN, Center for Inquiry at Public School 92. In the process, we asked teachers to reflect on their teaching styles as they helped students uncover answers to their questions about potatoes. Here we recount a slice of this multiweek experience in Becky Lane's kindergarten/first grade classroom to provide a glimpse into one teacher's experience of nurturing classroom inquiry.
Laying the Groundwork
"I eventually wanted the students to discover for themselves that some plants can be grown from things besides seeds, so I initiated a potato exploration," explains Becky. She laid the groundwork by asking the class as a group to start a KWL chart (What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I've Learned), first sharing what they already knew about potatoes. "This gives them the opportunity to start thinking about the area that we're working on and pull in some of their expertise," says Becky. "I like to see myself as pulling things out from the kids based on what they already know and helping them make connections to discover whatever they're going to discover."
Once students had a chance to share what they thought they knew about potatoes, Becky had them closely observe and compare two potatoes, one of which was beginning to sprout. "When you look at a common object, you have a tendency to just pull from your own memory," remarks Becky. "Sometimes when students use comparisons, it can draw a bit on their creativity." She invited students to look at these potatoes as though they had never seen one before, focusing their attention on what they saw rather than on what they knew.
"When we start a new unit with observations, I try to give everyone a chance to give some input," notes Becky. "Even though it may look very free where the kids are making all the decisions, it's not. I knew where we were going in the end. They were going to plant a potato or part of a potato, so we needed to make some kind of connection to be able to get to that point."
To provide that bridge, Becky asked students how they thought they could grow a potato other than from seeds, asking them to stretch to think of other ways. As students struggled out loud with the concept of growing potatoes from parts, Becky asked questions to help them clarify their thoughts, without evaluating their ideas. "I was really surprised at how many students just thought the potato piece planted would grow bigger and bigger (like a pumpkin) and that not one of them ever mentioned a plant," reports Becky. Rather than try to "correct" these misconceptions, she viewed them as an opportunity for students to actively investigate and discover for themselves how potatoes grow.
As a follow-up to students' brainstorming about how to grow potatoes, Becky asked them to work in pairs to come up with a plan to see if they could grow a potato in some other way than from a seed. "Sometimes their ideas conflicted, so they had to talk, listen, and in some cases compromise to decide how to proceed," says Becky. "I encouraged them to work things out with one another rather than coming to me for the answer." She eventually circulated to each pair, questioning to help students articulate their plans before beginning to plant.
"To allow kids the freedom to explore in the way they need to and want to is sometimes hard to manage," admits Becky. She tries to think through and have materials ready, but she also depends on students to take on certain responsibilities. In this case, she parceled out a box of soil and two potatoes per table of four, reminding students to lay out newspapers.
Partners tried different techniques, such as cutting potatoes in half, leaving them whole, or burying them at different depths. Students started potato journals that included a place to write or draw their plans and enter ongoing observations. As the kids planted potatoes according to their plans, Becky circulated and prompted them to consider whether what they had set up accurately reflected their stated plan.
Throughout the process, Becky asked students to consider other questions they had and things they might like to learn about potatoes. "Student questions give me some guidelines about other activities and resource books and materials I could bring in. My whole purpose with inquiry is to encourage kids to have their own questions and then see what sources exist -- whether they're books or people or trying experiments -- for finding answers to those questions. For instance, I might set up stations with invitations for independent learning such as comparing white with sweet potatoes, planting potato seeds, trying to grow different-sized pieces, making potato prints, and looking at maps to locate where potatoes originated. I also make fiction and non-fiction books available, but not until the students experience some potato growth themselves," she explains.
"I think one thing about inquiry is learning to ask open-ended questions that balance accepting their observations with pushing them to look at some things a littly differently," Becky reflects. For several weeks, her students examined their potato plantings and recorded observations. While some students were pleased to see their potatoes reveal sprouts within a few days, others were disappointed when theirs didn't sprout. "So we decided to dig up the potatoes and see what happened," reports Becky. "I personally put my finger down in one and just came up with mush and smell, which of course they thought was really neat." Upon further inspection, reflection, and discussion, students realized that the potatoes that were growing were those that had already had sprouts when they were planted. "Their earlier misconception about the potato getting bigger and bigger was dismissed once they saw the sprouts," she recalls. "Then, when they pulled one out of the pot to examine it, they could still see the original potato smaller and shriveled, rather than larger as some had predicted. They were very excited to see something so different from what they'd expected, and they've talked about it a lot since then." When students revisited their original KWL chart, the ideas that potatoes needed sprouts to grow into plants and that the original potato got smaller were reflected as things they'd learned during the exploration.
"Near the end of our potato explorations, I wanted students to have an opportunity to express something they had learned about potatoes," says Becky. "So I asked them to take something they'd learned about potatoes and imagine they were helping someone else understand it who didn't know anything about potatoes." The students chose to express their knowledge through different means, including producing a play, creating potato posters, and using modeling clay to illustrate potato growth and life cycles.
Although this seemed to be a culminating activity, Becky shared that one of the exciting aspects of inquiry for her is that you never really reach the end of something, because students keep coming up with other questions. A couple of her students, for instance, continued to be skeptical about a potato book describing potatoes actually growing flowers and fruits, so one student agreed to take one home to plant outdoors and observe during the summer. "It's important for them to question what they read and to learn how to experiment to test something," says Becky. "One of the most important learning outcomes is knowing that they can have a question, do something about it, make observations, and draw their own conclusions."
What about Becky's experience? "I had never seen a potato seed, dug potatoes, or observed the whole life cycle process, but it doesn't make me feel uncomfortable," she says. "As long as I can read and I can experiment with them, I'll be able to learn what they're learning. They know that I don't know everything. I think you need to be honest with kids. No one's going to know all the answers. We find out together."