Making physics physical

One of my favorite units of inquiry in Grade 4 at KIST, in the theme of ‘How the world works’, is titled Force & Motion, and focuses on Newton’s Laws of Motion. The unit resources when I arrived at the school included a few useful tools for demonstrations, but lacked class sets of items and structured experiences that students could use to explore and discuss.

Media

One resource we do have is access to excellent videos and online games. Some of our favorites are published by NASA and other space agencies, like Launchpad: Newton’s Laws On-Board the International Space Station (video), and the Physics Games website.

Twitter once again proved its worth as a tool for learning in the quoted tweet above, a live video of an astronaut playing with and observing a fidget spinner in microgravity. All of the media we have collected are engaging, but can’t compete with a fidget spinner for the attention of nine year olds.

Design & technology challenge

Each year, we have added materials and experiences to make the unit more visceral and fun. To kick off the unit, we introduced an initial provocation in the form of a G4 Water Balloon Drop Challenge. Using the rules outlined in the flyer, students research, design, and build their apparatuses independently outside of class. When we gather on the appointed day, I load each with a water balloon and drop them from the second floor balcony. Those that successfully protect the balloon are taken to the third floor and dropped again. The proud few that survive that are finally dropped from the fourth floor.

We often have visiting administrators and younger classes in the audience, so the event has become a well anticipated and exciting way to get our students thinking about forces and motion.

Get physical

Next, we collaborated with our Physical Education teacher to organize a tug-of-war tournament. Between each round of competition, each team reflected on one of Newton’s Laws of Motion to try to improve their performance.

My hope is that whenever these children think about physics or Newton, they will remember this event. Additionally, by systematically reviewing each of the laws during the tournament, there is definitely higher retention of the vocabulary of Newton’s Laws.

Hands-on exploration

This year, our new addition was a set of Newton’s Cradles. With enough for a pair of students to share one, I wrote a series of questions to add some guidance to their explorations, for example, ‘What happens when you raise and release one of the hanging balls?’.

While it is possible to demonstrate a Newton’s Cradle at the front of the classroom, and that would be better than watching a video, having one that every student could touch, see, and hear, up close, instantly transforms the lesson from passive to active.

Making catapults

Finally, as the culminating Summative Assessment Task for the unit, we ordered 1cm x 1cm x 90cm lengths of wood, nails, hammers, hacksaws, and safety goggles for the purpose of building catapults. The objectives were to expose the students to basic design and construction principles, explore Newton’s Laws of Motion in a practical way, then hold a grand catapult tournament on the main field in the center of the school.

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Having facilitated a Maker Club in the past, I was aware of the need to emphasize safety early on, but also to trust the students to look after their own well being. I find it’s best if my role is mainly to watch out for unsafe practices and intervene as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it happens rarely, leaving a high degree of autonomy for students and plenty of time for me to interact and promote collaboration among the groups.

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Children constantly impress me with their ability to creatively solve problems when they are trusted with the tools and freedom to do so.

There were many expected and unexpected benefits of this engagement. The expected ones were quite predictable, but unexpectedly, some of my less precocious students absolutely sprung to life. Some students who tend to be distracted in typical class activities, or struggle with academic work, were impressively inspired by the task of building a catapult. This phenomenon has caused me to think that the way we tend to use class time is unbalanced.

Reflection

Observing the excited energy and positive experiences of my students interacting with concepts and vocabulary of physics has pushed my pedagogical thinking even further in the direction of Constructionism. The idea that a learner figuratively builds understanding by literally building a physical – or virtual – object gains traction for me every time I see it in action.

In terms of assessment for the catapult challenge, I think it’s appropriate to use the method I employed for our Model UN scrimmage: Every student begins with a baseline ‘proficient’ score. In this case, we start with 90%. Then, as the activity progresses, teachers use structured observation to modify students’ scores on targeted skills. For this activity, we were looking for evidence of Spatial Awareness, Cooperation, and Independence.

And as always, the students complete a comprehensive self-assessment of all elements of task and unit.

Experiences like these remind me that school should be a lot more time spent doing tasks like these, and a lot less about rigid standards within a few disciplines.

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Questions in inquiry learning

A welcome development this year in the Elementary School at KIST has been an emphasis on inquiry. It is more than likely due to feedback from our recent IB re-authorization visit and for me, an opportunity to grow in one of the most challenging aspects of teaching. I’ve blogged quite a bit about the theory and practices of inquiry learning, most recently in the post, CLMOOC Unmake: Unintroducing inquiry learning.

When it was announced that inquiry would be a focus, I sifted through articles I had read and collected over the years.

I also enjoyed gliding over memory lane and revisiting some saved tweets with choice perspectives on inquiry.

One article that grabbed my attention last autumn was Good research starts with good questions by David Farkas and Brad Nunnally. What I found most interesting was that many of the pitfalls of research questions are actually key techniques in developing questions for inquiry learning. For example, research should avoid ‘leading questions’ that may skew data in a particular direction. In teaching, we want the learners to find their ways to a common destination, either general or specific.

Erasing prior knowledge

In an occurrence I wish were more common, while reflecting on the experience, a colleague commented that one challenge inquiry teachers face is the desire of students to ‘get the right answers’, or even worse, to answer in the way they believe the teacher wants. This can lead to regurgitated prior knowledge answers rather than creative explorations of the concepts and contexts presented in the questions.

In Grant Wiggins’ article, 5 Tips To Help Students Arrive At Their Own Understandings, the distinction between Understanding and Knowledge is highlighted. It’s vital that learning in an inquiry setting begin with as close to a clean slate as possible. The more a class feels that their teacher is soliciting a ‘right’ answer, the less likely they are to develop deeper and personal understanding.

Student questions

One solution to the problem is to ask students to generate questions based on elements of the understandings we wish them to pursue. In an IB PYP unit of inquiry, the ‘lines of inquiry’ should help to define the scope of an intended inquiry, while the ‘key concepts’ provide a frame or lens through which to interpret one’s findings.

The photo above is a list of questions generated by a provocation in which students identified company logos, then considered them in reference to the line of inquiry, ‘How images, text, and music are used to influence people’s choices’.

Teacher questions

This year, we are collaborating with another grade level team to develop questions together to provoke inquiry into a new unit. The initial concept was to begin with carefully selected materials and a starting question intended to stimulate creativity and curiosity. Subsequent questions would climb the Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder to higher-order thinking skills, as well as ‘funnel’ students’ understandings in the general direction prescribed by the Central Idea and Key Concepts of the unit.

Our first meeting was to develop questions for the other grade’s lesson. Then, we observed them and followed up with a debriefing session, and to develop questions for our lesson. They attended our lesson and we concluded the collaboration with a final debriefing about the entire experience.

The process reinforced my belief in the importance of collaboration and design thinking in Learning Experience Design.