Laying the Groundwork: Sparking Student Inquiry

By Eve Pranis, June 23, 2008

Watching a seedling unfurl, trying to influence the direction in which a root grows -- these experiences offer rich opportunities for sparking students' curiosity and questions, and set the stage for further exploration and discovery. A pile of seeds with diverse colors, textures, shapes, and structures holds endless possibilities for stimulating interest and questions. Some of these questions can be actively explored in the classroom, others may require research, and still others may remain mysteries.

As a teacher, consider how you "hook" students and help them generate questions that they can then investigate further. When beginning a plant activity or unit, how do you find out what students already know or think they know? In the GrowLab curriculum, Activities for Growing Minds, "Laying the Groundwork" is the phase of the teaching cycle meant to stimulate student curiosity and questions and to help you identify their current thinking about concepts and topics. "Inquiry starters" like many of those found in the guide can also be used as reference points for you and your students to assess what they're learning during investigations.

Building on unplanned, "teachable moments" sparked by students' interests or intrigue can be a powerful way of initiating an inquiry investigation. But it's often necessary to "jump start" that process by providing material and experiences rich in exploratory potential.

Plantwatching: Active Observations

Observing the natural world is key to engaging students' interest and generating questions. And it is one of the primary tools that scientists use to gather information and make sense of the world. Engaging students in observation activities to generate curiosity and questions can take different forms. Consider the following ideas.

Place some plants, flowers, or other plant material at a science center or throughout the room. You might post some questions that invite students to look more closely or think about specific aspects of what they see, for example: What do you notice about ...? What purpose do you think ... serves?

Give groups of students a collection of seeds (or other plant material) and time to "mess around" and carefully observe. Ask them to list all of their observations and all of their questions or things they wonder about seeds. You might also encourage them to compare, contrast, sort, and classify the seeds. Consider later giving them some of the same seeds that have been sprouted in baggies and ask them what additional observations and questions arise.

You may want to have students observe items first with their naked eye, then with hand lenses or microscopes. What new observations and questions arise when the objects change scale? Consider having them think metaphorically when magnifying objects by asking, What does this remind me of? (It might give them some ideas for investigations!)

As a variation on the above ideas, invite students to participate in a questioning circle. Introduce an object to be handed, in turn, to each student in a circle. Each must "ask" the object a question about itself. No one may repeat a question that's already been asked. Have someone record the questions generated. This list can serve as a springboard for active investigations.

Take students on a walk through the neighborhood or a local greenhouse or nursery to observe plants. Consider creating a treasure hunt sheet, to focus their observations, with directions such as: Find a leaf that you think an insect would not want to eat. Why do you think so?

Understanding What They Know

In addition the above observation activities, you may want to initiate an activity or unit in a way that helps reveal what students know or don't know about particular topics or concepts. Doing so can help you design learning experiences to help them develop new understandings. This assessment can also provide a useful benchmark for you and your students later to measure what they've gained from their explorations. You may even use some of the following as "pre" and "post" activities.

Have students create "concept maps" using words with connecting lines to represent their understanding of relationships among concepts By beginning an activity or unit with this, you can gain a sense of what students know, and plan experiences and challenges accordingly.

As a class or in groups, create "KWL" charts. Before beginning an activity or unit, create a chart to find our what students know (K) and what they want to know (W). This can set the stage for planning investigations. Following the activities, you can add what the students have learned (L). Consider also adding what I want to learn next, so students view learning as an ongoing process.

Before beginning an activity or unit, have students create stories, advertisements (for example: Four reasons to have roots!) metaphors (A leaf is like a ...), or drawings (What's inside a bean seed?) on a particular concept or topic.

Have students look at pictures or at an actual sequence or event (the life cycle of a plant or a plant exhibiting phototropism, for example). Ask them to talk or write about what they think is happening.

Use literature as a springboard for generating student questions and learning about their ideas. In the activity "Yo Seeds, Wake Up" from Activities for Growing Minds, for instance the "Frog and Toad" story is used to find out what students think seeds need in order to sprout.

Other "Inquiry Starters"

Have students play the role of plants to help them personalize and better understand plant needs and responses. For instance, in "Make Room for Raddy" in GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds, students experience an overcrowded situation as an entree to investigating plant needs for space.

Provide a "real life" or contrived challenge or mystery for students to solve. For instance, challenge students to investigate, then share with us how a new type of light bulb compares with those they're already using. NASA's program generated excitement among students wanting to discover whether seeds that traveled in space would produce Mutant Ninja tomatoes! And other activities, such as "Plant Parenthood" from GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds, create a more contrived scenario and challenge for students.

As we continue to work with educators using plants to help young minds grow, we're interested to know what you find effective in sparking students' curiosity and questions, and learning about their preconceptions. Share your ideas with us via email.

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