Thinking Long and Hard, in which We Create a New Model for Seasonal Change

Our unit on the seasons has drawn to a close. Earlier I posted about how our understanding of what caused the seasons was consistent with the explanation offered by many other learners, including some Harvard University graduates. In that earlier post, I explored the model for seasonal changes first articulated by the children (that the seasons are caused by the distance the Earth is from the Sun) and how we tried to disrupt that model by presenting contrary evidence. For instance, we built a scale model of the Earth and Sun system and noticed that the orbit was almost perfectly a circle, and we graphed monthly average temperatures from locations in the Southern and Northern Hemispheres.

These activities convinced the students that the naive model we had created could not explain seasonal variation in temperatures.

However, we did not have adequate information to form an alternate explanation. And if, as I suggested in that earlier post, our minds create stories to explain what we do not know, then without an alternate explanation we were vulnerable to re-adopting our previous story as the passage of time caused us to forget the reasons we gave it up in the first place.

So, what we did next was to build an alternate story that the Earth’s tilt on its axis causes the seasonal differences in temperatures. This story is easy enough to say, but I worried that such a simple explanation did not allow the children enough time or data to build an alternate model.

I knew changing the story would be difficult because I ran a little experiment. I told the children that the reasons for the seasons was the Earth’s tilt, and then I asked them to tell me how the tilt might cause the seasons. Even with various props (tennis balls and golf balls, for instance), they had a difficult time articulating why the tilt should matter. In fact, because it was difficult to articulate, many reverted to a variation on the “closer to the Sun” story, arguing that the tilt brought one hemisphere “closer to the Sun” than the other, which made it warmer than the one “farther from the Sun.” Hmm…Asking the children to explain their thinking helped me see the persistence of the old model!

Somehow I needed to help them see that there were other reasons besides distance to explain the seasons. I developed some simple lessons and demonstrations designed to help us see that there is a “triple-whammy” that causes the hemisphere tilted toward the Sun to have warmer temperatures.

Increased Area in the Summer

First off, I showed them a video that helped them visualize the way the tilt made one hemisphere absorb more of the Sun’s energy.

We watched the video several times so we could see how during the months a hemisphere was titled toward the Sun it was exposing more of it’s area to the Sun, thereby causing it to absorb more energy over a given period of time. We drew sketches that showed the hemisphere that tilted toward the Sun had a larger area that got sunlight during those months.

N. hemisphere summer. Note the increased area that absorbs the sun's energy.

N. hemisphere summer. Note the increased area that absorbs the sun’s energy.

Finally, we thought of analogies to help us cement this in our minds.1

Here is one analogy that we used to help us: A room with a small window will let in less warm sunlight than a room with a large window. The room with the large window will be warmer than the one with the small window because there is a greater area exposed to the sunlight.

Increased Day Length in Summer

I found a website that helped me graph day length in Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA (the two cities that we were using as our reference points.) We examined the graph to see if we could describe how the length of day changed in each location over the course of the year. Then we compared the two locations. We noticed that the shape of the graph was very similar to the shape of the average temperature graphs that we had completed earlier.

Comparison of day length for Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Comparison of day length for Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Comparison of average monthly temperatures. Canberra is in blue, Dubuque is in red.

Comparison of average monthly temperatures. Canberra is in blue, Dubuque is in red.

Again, we tried to create an analogy that might help us better understand what we were seeing: The longer you leave something in the oven, the warmer it will be (until it is the same temperature as the oven!)

The children were starting to form an alternate story now. More area that gets baked, plus longer in the oven creates higher temperatures in the summer.

We still had one more reason to consider.

Higher Sun Angle in the Summer

While the two reasons we had explored were probably sufficient to cement an alternate story, I wanted the children to get a sense of energy per unit of area. Exploring this concept would provide another opportunity for the children to understand more deeply the idea of area, a crucial math concept that they had been exposed to in fourth grade.

First, I showed the students the angle of the sun in Canberra and Dubuque. We practiced estimating angles of the sun by pointing with our arms extended to the place in the sky the sun would be at different times of the year. 2 The children intuitively knew that the sun was lower in the sky in the winter than the summer, but the graph helped them see that the time of highest sun angle was different for Canberra and Dubuque.

Comparison of the angle of the Sun by month for Canberra and Dubuque.

Comparison of the angle of the Sun by month for Canberra and Dubuque.

Earlier that day I set up two heat lamps. Both heat lamps were set 80 cm from a penny, and contained the same wattage of heat lamp bulb. However, one heat lamp was at a high angle to the penny (the summer position of the sun) and the other was at a low angle to the penny (the winter position of the sun.) I turned on the lamps and let the penny absorb the heat for 1.5 – 3 hours, depending on the time of the three science classes I teach. We measured the surface temperature using a digital laser thermometer.

A sketch of the lamp set up.

A sketch of the lamp set up.

As we examined the heat lamp set-up, the children estimated the area lit by the heat lamp bulb. They could easily see that the same amount of energy was spread over a large area when the “sun” was at a low angle and was more concentrated in a smaller area when the “sun” was at a high angle.

We searched for a suitable analogy and came up with this: When the sun is high in the sky, it’s like the Earth is baking in an oven set up to deliver more intense heat. The heat reaching the Earth is more concentrated during the summer months so each location on that hemisphere absorbs more heat than in the winter.

So, finally we had an alternate explanation. The Earth’s tilt creates a triple whammy that increases the temperatures in the hemisphere that is tilting toward the Sun:

  1. The tilt increases the area that can absorb the Sun’s energy in the hemisphere tilted toward the Sun, and decreases the area in the one tilted away from the Sun. This causes more of the Sun’s energy to be absorbed in one hemisphere than the other.
  2. The tilt also increases the day length in the hemisphere experiencing summer temperatures. The longer the day, the longer the Sun can bake that hemisphere, the more energy that hemisphere absorbs.
  3. Finally, the tilt increases the sun angle in that same hemisphere. The higher the sun’s angle, the more concentrated the energy is, which is like putting that location in a hotter oven.

So, not only is the hemisphere experiencing a hotter oven (sun angle) for longer periods of time (day length) there is more of it in that hotter oven at a time (area).

Was it worth it to spend this amount of time on what causes the seasons? Couldn’t we just learn a song to remember the causes? 

I think it was worth the time.

If science is not just about learning a set of facts, but reasoning our way through arguments and creating explanations based on evidence, then I think the time we spent thinking through our evolving understanding was probably worth it. Perhaps one of the reasons we maintain our misconceptions even after we know the “facts” is because we create “stories” to explain the world to our satisfaction. That’s what I saw when I asked the children to explain the seasons even after they had left the “distance from the Sun” explanation in the dust. If we do not pause long enough to take in new information, to play with it, to bat it around, to consider the implications of that information, then we run the risk of not seeing the significance of that information and how it conflicts with the stories we create.

  1. One thing good science writers understand very well is how powerful a good comparison — most likely an analogy — can be for helping a learner understand an abstract concept. We humans are creatures of comparison! I tell the kids that comparison is one of our super powers.
  2. This was good practice estimating angles from reference angles. The students had to identify 90 degrees, then half of that for a 45 degree angle. Using these two reference points, we estimated other angles in each location.

Questioning the Stories We Tell Ourselves — Misconceptions in Science Class


misconception definition

Science educators have long noted that learners can hold misconceptions about important scientific concepts. These misconceptions are often formed in elementary school, and can be surprisingly difficult to shake. 1

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how I might help students create stories to contain and connect the information they are learning in science class. I wondered if misconceptions might somehow be connected with the stories we tell ourselves. 2

As Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow notes, our brains have a hard time NOT making sense of things. We create stories to help us connect things, to remember them, and to make sense of things. Sometimes we jump to conclusions because the “story” we tell ourselves makes intuitive sense, but might be built on flimsy evidence.



The fact that we can see a connection between things, even if it is superficial or tenuous, can serve as evidence that the connection is true and important. We sometimes don’t question the story we tell ourselves because it seems like the story confirms what we already knew. Contrary evidence is discarded or, perhaps, not even noticed because it does not fit with the story we have created.3

What if the stories we tell ourselves about why or how things happen is strongly influenced by this almost innate desire to create stories with some degree of coherence? What does that mean for how I address misconceptions in science class? Perhaps it is really important to interpret the stories we tell ourselves, to determine the underlying “theme” (theory or model) that holds the story together. Then we can test that unifying concept against alternate versions of the story to see what holds us to the evidence we see in the real world.

Such was my thinking when we entered our learning unit on what causes the seasons.

At the very beginning of our learning, I gave the students this task:

The weather in our area is much colder than it was at the beginning of the year. We started the year at the end of summer and now we are entering winter. What do you think causes summer and winter? Jot down some words to explain why this happens. Please make a sketch of the Earth, the Sun, and how they move in relationship to each other to help me understand your explanation.

That evening I looked at the stories that emerged and found some surprising commonalities. For instance, about 10% of the children drew diagrams that had the Sun revolve around the Earth. We needed to deal with that important minority opinion.4 A very large number of children described the Earth in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. In this model, the seasons are caused by the Earth being closer to the Sun in the summer, and farther away from the Sun in the winter.

This is our first model of the Earth and the Sun. It's purpose was to visually represent (model) our explanation for the seasons.

This is our first model of the Earth and the Sun. It’s purpose was to visually represent (model) our explanation for the seasons.

The next day I asked the children why they thought this was the case. The first thing most said was that they hadn’t thought of trying to figure out the causes of winter and summer before, so my request was a challenge for them. But then they offered an explanation that the elliptical orbit placed the Earth closer to the Sun during July (a hot month) and farther from the Sun in January (a cold month). They argued that it made sense to them because the closer you are to a heat source, the warmer you get; the farther you are from that source, the cooler you get. In other words, this explanation makes intuitive sense based on their lived experience. Even though they had not really thought about the Earth’s orbit much before, they worked backwards from that lived experience to fit the orbit with the experience. While it bothered some that the Sun wasn’t in the center (“It doesn’t look right.”) they were willing to let go of that to make the model fit with the notion of how distance and temperature are related.

In fact, this explanation was also the one provided to the interviewers who asked Harvard graduates the very same question back in the 1980s.

Given our model, we made some predictions:

  • The closer the Earth gets to the January position in the orbit, the colder the temperatures will be.
  • The closer the Earth gets to the July position in the orbit, the warmer the temperatures will be.

I gave the children average temperature data by month for two locations: Dubuque, IA (close to our school location) and from Canberra, Australia (about as far from us as we can get.) Their task was to graph these data and to check it against what our model predicted.

The children set out to graph temperature data from Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

The children set out to graph temperature data from Canberra, Australia and Dubuque, IA.

Within minutes I heard exclamations like these:

  • Wait! What’s happening?
  • This can’t be right!
  • What?
  • Canberra is almost opposite of Dubuque!
  • What could cause that…?
  • Wow. I didn’t expect that.

I also showed the children a video that I had asked my wonderful brother to make. (He happened to be in Australia this last month.) On the day he shot it, the temperature was 84 degrees on the beach in Australia and 11 degrees in our town.

Then I asked the children to gather into groups to talk about the implications of what they had learned. Their task was to discuss these questions:

  • Does the evidence support our model, or cause us to question our model?
  • If it causes us to question the model, then what changes to our model would you make?
  • What additional information do you request from me in order to revise this model?

After a few minutes in their groups to try to come up with a different model (using sundry balls we had in the classroom), we gathered together to talk. We discovered that almost everyone wanted to change the model. Most wanted to change it drastically. Now they felt that the Sun had to somehow be in the center. Since the Earth was both warm and cool at the same time, they felt that an elliptical orbit would no longer work as an explanation. However, they grappled with how to explain the seasons, then; how could they develop a model that would take into account the fact that winter and summer appeared at the same time, but in different places? The advantage of the previous model was that it had explained temperature differences between the seasons. The disadvantage of the model was that it didn’t fit the more complex reality of actual temperatures on the Earth. Now, we were left without an explanatory model. That’s an uncomfortable position to be in.

Acknowledging the work they had done to try to revise the model, I asked them what new information they wanted to make sure their next model was more accurate. Here is a list of some new questions/requests for information:

These are some requests for additional information from the students. The numbers to the left side are the number of votes each request garnered.

These are some requests for additional information from the students. The numbers to the left side are the number of votes each request garnered.

Toward the end of last week I gave them data about the orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the diameters of the Earth and the Sun in order to help them answer their question about the shape of the Earth’s orbit. Their task was to make a scale model of this system given the data that I presented to them. I’ll post about this fascinating discussion next week, if I get a chance.

This whole process has been intriguing and, well, scary — like walking a tightrope is scary: I don’t want to make a mis-step. For instance, I gave the children a lot of space in class to discuss the first “elliptical orbit” model, knowing that it was inaccurate. We even used class time to develop a rationale for why that might make sense. So, in a sense I was helping the children develop a misconception, maybe even solidifying that misconception in their own minds. I worried about that.5

But, I think it will work out okay in the long run. This has been a puzzle that they have to think about. They have had to be engaged, thinking through the entire activity: one child: “This is so hard! It’s confusing…but fun to try to figure out!” And now they are accumulating information that has caused them reject their first model. I’m noticing that they are not going back to it, even though they do not have anything to take its place. I suspect that reluctance to readopt it might stem from the fact that moving from it wasn’t imposed on them by an “authority figure” like me, but from their own reasoning through the implications of the model they created. I’m hoping that the next model we create will provide enough explanatory power that it will stick more strongly than the “closer means more heat, farther means less heat” model.

Our next steps will be to offer alternative explanations using data about day length and sun angle to help them see why the seasons happen when they do. I’ll report back on what I learn from this process.

  1. Check out the science-related website, Veritasium, for their Misconceptions playlist. It’s fun to watch. Here’s an example:

  2. My own inquiry explores the implications of the idea that our minds, as author Thomas Newkirk reminds us, are “made for stories.” I presented some of this early thinking with a panel of wonderful folks at the NCTE14 conference in Washington, D.C. in November. One recent project brought me to experiment with collaborative story creation as a way to more deeply learn science concepts. As I explored this process, I was impressed by how deeply the kids processed complex scientific ideas. It seems that being able to put ideas into words, to see and articulate the relationships between ideas, to tell the story of a particular idea really does matter.
  3. This is the definition of confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out and assign greater weight to evidence that confirms our preconceived notions. I suspect that this tendency ALSO might come from our ability to create stories. Coherence matters to those stories. But, maybe my attributing this tendency to our need to create stories is an example of confirmation bias, itself!
  4. We dealt with that by acting out the orbit of the Earth and the Sun as partnerships in various corners of the room. Then we compared our ideas and arrived at a community consensus that the Earth revolved around the Sun, not the other way around. This wasn’t “proof” in any scientific sense, but everyone had heard that this was the case, so could accept the idea once they had acted it out and they could see why it looks like the Sun is orbiting the Earth each day.
  5. One teaching associate who visited the classroom during one of those days later told me that she thought that she had the reasons for the season wrong after our discussion. That worried me!

What the Indian Grass Revealed — Some Thoughts on Learning in a Time of Standards

What should the children know and be able to do?

My teaching work is to design lessons around the answers to this question. And I do. But then, like the other day, something happens that reveals the vast chunk of learning that never made it into the standards. Yet, this is the learning that sometimes seems most important to me and causes me to remember that “career and college ready” does not encompass some of the most important learning in our classroom.

The week before Thanksgiving we spent some time writing descriptions. My goal was to help the children be able to organize their own thinking and their writing. They will use these skills as they write informational pieces later this month. From our work, they will be able to describe an object with precision and artfulness.

This seems a worthwhile set of skills to learn. I love elegant, clear thinking. Certainly this kind of precise thinking and writing would be a boon in most careers; colleges might really groove on those, too, though sometimes I wonder if artfulness might be less well appreciated in many careers and colleges.

Big Blue WhaleWe began by studying several of Seymour Simon’s descriptions. You can pick just about any of his books since they are filled with great description. We ended our study with Nicola Davies’ short description of the outside of a blue whale from her book, Big Blue Whale.

The blue whale is big. Bigger than a giraffe. Bigger than an elephant. Bigger than a dinosaur. The blue whale is the biggest creature that has ever lived on Earth!

Reach out and touch the blue whale’s skin. It’s springy and smooth like a hard-boiled egg, and it’s slippery as wet soap. Look into its eye. It’s as big as a teacup and as dark as the deep sea. Just behind the eye is a hole as small as the end of a pencil. The hole is one of the blue whale’s ears — sticking-out ears would get in the way when the whale is swimming.

We noticed the way Simon and Davies started big — to give an overview of the object to be described, to help the reader see the big picture — before diving into the details. We noticed how good description is organized to help the reader assimilate this new information in an organized and logical fashion. We noticed how good description often uses comparisons to help a reader attach the unfamiliar to the familiar.

The more the children looked, the more they saw the art contained in a good description.

Over the next several days, we described various items around the classroom, practicing our craft. Then, just to see what they would do, I brought in some cut stems of Indian grass, a large prairie grass that grows in the prairie  we are trying to grow on the hill near my house. I thought the children might be interested in this very large version of a common plant: grass.

Indian grass from the prairie on the hill above my house.

Indian grass from the prairie on the hill above my house.

They were.

IMG_0845 - Version 2The children each took a piece to study. They measured against the tiles on the floor; each stem was between 5 and 8 feet tall! They marveled at the size. They marveled at how different turf grass is from prairie grass. And how similar, too.

They looked carefully at how the grass was put together. They began to name the parts, because in order to describe well, you have to name the parts. This need to notice and name parts helped the children see why science is so dense with vocabulary. Scientists must look closely at things, name the parts they see, and then describe them clearly.

At first, the children only saw the stem and the seed head. Some saw the leaves, but these thin strips don’t look like what they are used to calling leaves. The more they looked, though, the more parts they saw. They did not know the technical terms for all of the parts, but to describe well, they needed to call them something. So they set out as explorers, naming the new lands they saw. For instance, what are you going to call the little “hairs” that protrude from the flattened end of the seed? I urged them to think of the function these “hairs” might serve, and then give them a name that reflects that purpose. (Seed stickers. Seed grabbers. Seed attachers. These were some of the part-names they came up with.)

As they sketched, as they wrote, they began to see the wonder contained in the supposedly simple things around them.

Some saw how the large structures they noticed first (the long stem, for instance) are actually made from ever smaller structures, and these were made from even smaller structures, and so on. The more you looked, the more you saw. Where do you stop with your noticing? With your naming?

The stem is hollow! What do I call that hollow? Is it used for anything, or is it just hollow?

Did you notice the stem has sections? There are joints that separate those sections! It’s like the stem grows up to a certain point and then decides to stop and then it starts growing all over again!

The stem wall has all of these little strands of fiber in them. I wonder what they do? What are they for?

Some saw the connections between this grass and other plants they knew. (Some are farmers, after all.)

Indian grass looks a lot like corn, except the seeds are not all put together in a cob like corn, but in a spray of seeds. The leaves and the stem look like corn though.

Others began to see the overall symmetry of the basic grass design.

Did you know that Indian grass has the same pattern that repeats itself all the way up the stem? Each segment fits into the segment below it.

If you look at the seed head, even those tiny stalks that hold the seeds look just like the stem. They have all these little joints, but they are not nearly as big around as the stem farther down.

I wonder how the Indian grass knows how to stop growing up and when to start making a seed head?

Some saw patterns in the way the leaves came off the stem. Some, even wondered whether you could even call these leaves, since it looked like they were at one time part of the stem. Is a leaf a leaf? A stem a stem? When does one become the other?

I noticed that the leaves start at these joints and wrap themselves around the stem. Maybe they aren’t even different than the stem? But then they grow for awhile and separate from the stem. Why? How can a stem become a leaf?

When the children got to this stage in our investigation, it seemed to me that something special was happening. I told them that they were noticing things that only people who study plants, who look very closely at them, notice. And they were asking questions that no one knows the answer to, but scientists are very interesting in knowing these answers. “What, exactly, causes a plant to stop growing up and start to grow a seed head? What causes anything to change? What causes you to change? To grow?” These are important questions, important observations. I congratulated them.

For a moment, I stood there amidst the clamor watching the children run from plant to plant as they showed each other the discoveries they made. We’ll get back to the description, I thought to myself. But right then what seemed most important was to honor the curiosity bubbling through the room. And I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder how this kind of endeavor gets turned into an “I can…” statement, then packaged as a “skill” to be mastered.

So this time of learning, of exploration came, and then it went. And it DID take time; these moments don’t come free. If the moments we spent looking at grass, I mean really looking at grass, were “billable” hours in the great race to the top, under what standard would the Grand Accountant code them?

And yet, I know these times are important precisely because they reach so deeply inside.

Starting our Weather Unit with Questions

I have been trying to incorporate student questions into the work we are doing in science class, which seems like it should be a place where questions should dominate.

But it’s been difficult.

I have a whole raft of reasons why, during our recent unit on plate tectonics and the rock cycle, I did not ask students to generate questions but came at them with some of my own, instead. For example: How do I manage three sections of student questions? How can I get the children to engage with the concepts that assessments will require them to know when the questions that will drive our learning come from them, not the “curriculum?” How can I help the children learn to ask questions at all? Will they be any good?

Any one of these was enough to derail me.

Circles / Círculos (Abstracción 011)
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Claudio.Ar via Compfight

Despite these worries, as my next unit on weather and climate was taking shape I decided that I shouldn’t let my fears/anxieties rule me. So, we started out our learning with the protocol suggested by The Right Question Institute and asked us some questions.

First, I thought of a focus statement that I figured would allow us to focus our inquiry on some of the key concepts about the atmosphere and how it creates different weather and climates. That was difficult, and I know I can do better next time, but here’s what I came up with:

It is sunny and warm today, but by Wednesday rain will fall from a cloudy sky.

Then, I set the kids loose to ask questions. Using the four rules outlined by The Right Question Institute, they generated a long list in a few minutes. After the initial brainstorming, we paused to determine if they were “open” or “closed” and then to change a few from closed to open, and open to closed. (Open questions require extended learning, research, or discussion to answer. Closed ones can be answered in a word or two.)

An interesting discussion came out of that process. Most groups created far more “open” questions than closed ones, and indicated that they thought open questions were “better” than closed ones. But as we talked, we came to see that closed questions might actually be at the root of the scientific method. And, besides, it’s nice to get a definitive answer sometimes!

While an open question like “Why can it rain one day and not the other?” might require an in depth look at what causes rain, and also what causes weather to be patchy across the landscape, scientific understanding is often built through a series of answers to “closed” questions like the following:

  • Will it rain tomorrow?
  • Does a north wind always follow rain?
  • Does rain always follow a drop in air pressure?

(By the way, these are the questions that are starting to come up as we collect weather data for our town.1)

From answering questions like these (through observation and data gathering), we can develop the kind of general understandings that are at the heart of how new scientific knowledge is created. We begin to gather data and see patterns: Yes, our observation/data suggests this always happens. No, this does not always happen. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. But under all circumstance, each answer points us toward asking more questions and gathering more data.

After we played with changing the question form, I asked the children to prioritize the questions they had created, telling them that the questions they picked would help drive our unit of study. My criteria was open-ended: Choose five questions that you think are most important. Now narrow that to two. Have reasons for why you think they are important. 

The students presented their choices and their rationale to the rest of the class.

The priority questions from the three classes ran the gamut, but showed a remarkable similarity, too.

Students thought important questions were related to dangers from weather, so there were questions like these: Will the river rise and flood? Will lightning strike? Why does lightning strike metal?

Or about the inconvenience of the rain: When will it rain, exactly? Will it rain all day?

There were also other questions like these: How can it rain one day and not the other? Why does it rain some places on the Earth but not other places? What causes it to rain? Where does the water come from?

We are using some of these later questions to structure the larger learning unit. But as Wednesday came and went (and the rain came and came) the students were able to answer some of the “convenience/inconvenience” questions, and I could see that they paid more attention to the weather because they wanted to answer their questions.

While the Upper Iowa River that runs through our town did not rise much, the students (and I) paid more attention to the way runoff changed the flow of the small creek that runs behind the school.2 For instance, on my way to the parking lot on Thursday afternoon, I paused to shoot a video of the creek. Would I have done that if the children had not asked a question about the river rising? Probably not.

Finally, because we spent two days on questions, and the children got to talk more, I got a better sense of what they do and do not know about the atmosphere. Their questions taught me some things. For instance, tomorrow we will take a little side-trip into what a gas is, so we can then talk about atmospheric pressure, because without knowing about air pressure, they won’t be able to more deeply understand fundamental concepts about wind and where clouds come from.

Would I have known that without taking time for questions? Again, probably not. And even if I did, it would have been much more difficult for me to situate the concepts in a context that would engage the students. I think the questions will help them see the connections better.

I am still worried about how to assess the student learning because the concepts we will learn are more wide-ranging (from states of matter and how gases act, to graphing, to air pressure, to what causes climates to differ) than they would be if I had done things in a more traditional way. But…it does feel good, and it is interesting so I guess we’ll have to figure out as we go what will be the end result of our learning.

An interesting process, this.

UPDATE: By the way, earth: an animated map of global weather conditions is a terrific tool to get kids wondering. I check it out several times a week. Mesmerizing.

  1. These questions would likely not have emerged if we had not had the opportunity to ask questions early in the unit. I can’t know that for sure, but I do see a difference in the willingness of the children to spontaneously ask questions like these.
  2. One child even made some good connections back to the learning we did about sediments and erosion from our last learning unit!

Questions at the Center

In science class I decided to jump right into the kind of thinking that is central to science inquiry; in particular, I wanted the children to develop questions based on observation.

Here is a re-blog from my classroom website of our first learning activity, which was designed to help children learn to ask questions. I’m indebted to my virtual colleague, Julieanne Harmatz, whose blog post last year helped me see the power of a question-asking protocol like that developed by The Right Question institute.

These are very fun baby steps.

*  *  * Reblogged *  *  *

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Oberazzi via Compfight

This week I read a fun short picture biography of Albert Einstein to the children.


The book helped me introduce the central place questions have in the study of science and, well, just about everything. (I talked about how scientists are like 2-year olds on steroids: they get to ask “Why?” over and over again.)

I’m afraid that we teachers sometimes ask students to answer way more questions than they get to create. This summer I did some reading about how to help children learn to ask more and better questions to guide their learning. One book I read was this:

More Beautiful Question

Thanks to Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading blog) for helping me find this book.

I used the ideas from that book and some from The Right Question Institute website to design a lesson on how to ask good questions. We’ll practice these as the year goes along. In a nutshell, here is what happened. After we read about Albert Einstein, I gave the students a short list of rules about how to brainstorm questions. Then I gave them a thinking prompt in the form of an observation that I had made after a walk with my dogs around our prairie:

Dragonflies appeared in large numbers near my house yesterday.

Here are the children at work.

We collected the questions. Here is a sampling:

  • Where did the dragonflies come from?
  • How many were there?
  • Is there more than one kind?
  • What are they doing?
  • Are they eating anything?
  • When did the dragonflies come…exactly?
  • Are the dragonflies still there?

Then we talked about how I might be able to answer these questions. Suggestions like these came up:

  • You could sit and watch them for awhile to see what they were doing. Make sure you write down everything they are doing.
  • You could try to catch some and put them in the freezer so you can see what they look like. Maybe you could identify them that way.
  • You could take pictures or videos of them flying so you could see what they were doing.

These were awesome ideas. (In fact, I’m thinking of doing some of these on Sunday afternoon just to see if I can find out some of the answers.) And that is just  the kind of thinking (and activity) scientists get to do for a living.

Finally, here is a cool chart of the “scientific method” (described here) that we will use throughout the school year. I was pleased, though, how well our first attempt to think like a scientist went.

science flowchart

Rich Tasks — Saving Space for Student Thinking

Lots of time has passed since I last posted. I have been up to my eyeballs in new curriculum planning/envisioning (fourth grade is new for me), union negotiations (I’m the chief negotiator for our local), and in creating portfolio entries for my attempt to achieve National Board Certification. While there are many stories to tell about what has happened lately, a recent post about by mentor, ether-friend Vicki Vinton jarred loose a post that has been rattling around in my brain for awhile.

Vinton talks about how she’s benefited from her connection with math colleagues who talk about “rich tasks.” In upcoming posts, she will talk about how to apply the idea of rich tasks to reading, too. According to Vinton, rich tasks are those that “provide multiple entry points”, “invite creative and critical thinking”, “spotlight…both processes and product…(to help) students better see the connection between means and ends”, and “promote student ownership.” In other words, they are the kind of tasks that a teacher loves to create and witness.

Like Vicki, I’ve also benefited from being in touch with math thinkers who seek to understand what students are thinking, what their misconceptions are, where the limits of their knowledge and skill lie, and how they approach/attack a math task. 1 The richer the task, it seems, the greater the opportunity to discover the edges of student thinking. And, truthfully, teaching gets really fun when we are near those edges.

If there is any subject that can create a rich task, science is one! And that’s where we are right now.

Recently we finished taking the IA Assessments 2 To celebrate, we’re learning a lot of science. 3 Our task has been to design and build an air-powered skimmer. 4

First, the students formed design teams. I asked them to create a logo and a slogan. That was an interesting task in itself. We “closely read” some logos and slogans that we found on line, how they tried to transmit those meanings through graphics and short text.

This part of the task helped me see many things, in particular how students tried to manage their own uniqueness as part of a group, but also their awareness of an audience outside themselves. Some were better able to imagine that outside audience than others. These degrees and kinds other-awareness were interesting grist for the teacher thought-mill, and seemed so connected to the crucial skills of listening and questioning that go into learning. A rich task like this helped me see the learners better. Anything that helps me understand them better as people seems to help my teaching.

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Then, the students were given the “task” to create a wind powered skimmer that would go at least 60cm, but as far as possible. They set to work creating their initial sail designs. I observed and asked questions about the rationale for their design work. What do you think will happen? Why did you put that there? Why did you make this shape? Questions of that sort.

The project used a typical engineering design protocol, which we have used over and over again.


The design process we used.

The design process we used.

After the students designed their sails, they tested them, recorded the information from the tests, and re-designed to solve the problems that they discovered in the testing stage. I continued asking questions, helped them solve some of the group process issues that inevitably arose, and pushed them to examine the principles behind their designs. Although the students often “designed” based on principles (they had a gut-level sense of cause and effect as far as their design went), articulating those principles in more general ways is new to them and one of my goals for this project.


Along the way, to help them focus on what we could generalize from our work, we gathered together periodically to talk about what design principles we have discovered about what make sails work well, which the children could use to help them re-designed their sails. I introduced them to vocabulary like these: friction, friction force, sail frontal area, hull, bow, stern, mast, torque…

Finally, we had a competition to see whose sail design would make the skimmer go the farthest. Each design team then evaluated the results of the competition. We created short videos (ostensibly to “send” to the EarthToy company president, IM Green) describing the design as accurately as possible, the outcome of that design as evidenced by the competition, their thoughts on why this outcome happened (using scientific terminology), and what their next design idea would be and why they expect that idea to be an improvement over the one they entered in the contest.

This reflection was an interesting task in itself, and putting it in video form allowed the children a chance to reflect on their presentation for future work.


I realized from this process that I am so much happier, as a teacher, working backwards from student thinking to strategy instruction than I am starting with delivering the strategy without deeply knowing the student thinking first. I really enjoy giving the students a big, unwieldy problem or task whether it be in math, in science, or in reading. Then I like to probe the children’s thinking as they complete the task. This kind of teaching is less efficient and messier, I know. 5

This kind of rich science task could be transferred to other areas by analogy. For example, just this last week, as we were revising drafts of persuasive essays, one of the students mentioned that revising was a lot like what we were doing in science with our skimmers. I asked for elaboration (love that word). His response: It’s where we design something and then change it to make it perform better. If we can internalize that idea, that revision is re-design for the purpose of better performance, then perhaps it will make our writing better, too? Maybe, too, it’s at the heart of growth mindsets and those wonderful “principles” of math practice that the CCSS-Math outlines.

  1. I have learned a lot from the work of Dan Meyer, especially his 3-Act Math, Christopher Danielson, and Joe Schwartz.
  2. This is the test formerly known as ITBS, which I’ve heard some of the wittier middle school students re-name as a statement without a linking verb: it bs.
  3. Teachers understand how testing crowds out the best stuff. The best stuff is often messy and takes time. During testing, time is of the essence and messiness doesn’t fit the schedule.
  4. I wrote and received a grant to purchase a couple A World in Motion kits last year from the Governor’s STEM Start-up funding stream. We are using, and modifying, these materials.
  5. Interestingly, several of the math thinkers I follow are aware of how their focus on rich tasks, uncovering student thinking, and multiple solutions has spawned a counter-movement, one that focuses on explicit instruction of the most efficient algorithms, and “efficient” transmission of new knowledge. In Canada, for instance. Obviously, I’m much more aligned with the “new math” crowd than the efficient transmission camp. Like my math mentors, I feel that good teacher questioning should be designed to help me, and the children, understand the principles behind our thinking, principles we use to build our next level of understanding. I am pessimistic, though, that without strong conceptual understandings even the most efficient of algorithms are all that efficient in the long run.

Growing Ideas Takes Time

Cross section of a trees' roots * Flickr Explore
Photo Credit: Aaron Escobar via Compfight

One of the benefits of teaching many different subjects (as I do in fourth grade) is being able to come back to an idea or a question over and over again. Too often we think of learning happening in neat little packages: I taught this lesson and now I’m moving on to the next one. But learning doesn’t happen in nice, neat packages very often. It occurs in what I think of as seasons, with long periods of fallow and subterranean root development between harvests.

I was reminded of this kind of episodic learning once again this week. We’ve been exploring some questions related to immigration through a wonderful immersion project with a local museum. One of our reading groups recently finished an informational book on Ellis Island, took some notes on its content, and is now working up a video to teach the other kids in the class about what happened there. They’ve written the script and this week they are downloading photos from a marvelous collection offered through a photo stream from the New York Public Library via the Creative Commons.

At any rate, the kids came across many, many photos that looked like these.

Then something interesting happened. The kids stopped and stared at the photos.

It turns out that the kids were looking closely and making connections to the drawings from The Arrival, a wordless graphic novel I had used to introduce our immigration unit. Said they, “These look a lot like the pictures we saw at the beginning of The Arrival!”

“Hmm…” I said. And I trotted over to get the book.

You see what you think.

The Arrival_faces2

So, then the connections came flying.

“Those people in The Arrival are definitely immigrants!”

“They look almost exactly the same as the drawings!”

“I wonder if the author saw these photos and drew the pictures from them.”

“Now we can see where the immigrants are from!” (The country of origin is in the notes on the Flickr account.)

So, maybe this connection between our reading of The Arrival and the New York Public Library’s photo stream isn’t the biggest thing that ever happened. But since our first interpretation of that page of faces from The Arrival was “Those look like terrorists!”, we have come a long way!

I think the struggle we went through to understand the drawings helped set the students up to not just KNOW that many different immigrants came through Ellis Island, this struggle also helped them OWN that difference in a deeper way than if I had told them from the outset, “No, those are not terrorists. They are immigrants.”

Coming Out (of the Corset)

National Portrait Gallery
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Terry Hassan via Compfight

Today’s post takes me away from the classroom stories I have been sharing and straight into the confessional.

Here it comes: I’m in an existential crisis. I love to read. I REALLY don’t like reading class. That makes me just like many of my students.1 Except that I’m responsible for the misery.

I had a crisis over winter break. I didn’t want to come back to school and teach reading in the spring. I wanted to teach science, social studies, math, and writing. Not reading.


Much of the current GREAT THINKING in education says our lessons have to be TIGHTLY FOCUSED around a SINGLE IDEA that is PROMINENTLY POSTED so students can KNOW WHAT THEY ARE LEARNING TO DO.

I’ve found that tight focus feels, well, tight…and confining…like a corset. (Or at least how I imagine a corset must feel?) It squishes me innards, metaphorically speaking.

I’m tired of the lessons whose tight focus on a reading strategy or genre leaves little space for the children to stretch and think for themselves; the five-days-a-week meetings of reading groups at the appropriate guided reading level to gradually release responsibility for my predetermined focus lesson; the “progress monitoring” of children, as if that much measuring of accuracy and rate (which is what it usually distills to) makes a hoot of difference for the big things that matter the most (or that measuring a lot makes a lot of difference, either.) I’m tired of the guilt for never being able to accomplish the above.

To make matters worse, a full two hours of our day is taken up by reading instruction, a 90 minute reading block and a 30 minute “intervention” block, which doesn’t leave much time for the classes the kids actually do like, like science and social studies and (less universally liked) writing, much less for student inquiry. The corset, though fashionable, is killing me and the students.

So, I’m experimenting. I’m stepping over to the Dark Side, further away from the core reading program, further into infidelity. (Infidel. Heretic. Ugh.)

It is not enough just to close the door anymore and hope no one notices. So, I have to be prepared for the eventual blow back. I will share my thinking so that I am prepared.

First (and primarily), I am focusing our learning on questions, rather than statements, because questions elicit thought. The two questions that have served me best are these: What sense can we make of this? And, later: Why might this be important to know or understand? From those, we can generate questions that will draw us deeper into our own inquiry. The inquiry may come from a topic I’ve chosen, or something the children develop themselves. But, if I post anything on a poster, it will be those questions.

Second, we will reflect on the answers to those questions. If I post anything else on posters, it will be how we have (provisionally) answered those questions, the discoveries we have made.

As far as structure, because I know I will get some questions about that. I’ll continue to offer a lot of uninterrupted self-selected reading. The innovation, though, was to create a wall of books we have read, with short, teaser reviews when the kids finish reading them. We are using that wall as a place to show our own reading, with periodic reflection along the way. The kids like reading self-selected books. (Like my brother-in-law, they don’t consider reading actual books to be “reading class.”) They like sharing what they’ve read with others. More of that, please.

I am also bringing more science and social studies into our small group reading time. Sure we are reading words, but we are also reading tables and graphs and maps and figures and videos and Google Earth and physics demonstrations in order to understand something important about a topic we are studying. We will start with the same questions: What sense can we make of this? Why might this be important to know or understand? And these groups will not meet five days a week, either. Two at most, for longer periods of time, sometimes less often.

I won’t let mini-lessons and small group work crowd out our shared read alouds. Period.

I’ll continue to talk to kids individually. If the powers that be want five group meetings for struggling readers, I’ll point toward two longer group meetings and (at least) three conferences per week and (hopefully) we will have a discussion about the relative utility of this path vs. the other.

Mostly, though, I want the kids to think. And I do not want to contribute to their dislike of “reading, the class.”

  1. My all-time favorite story about how universal this problem is came from my brother-in-law, then a fourth grader in Texas. When I asked him whether he liked reading, his answer came in the form of a question: “Do you mean reading the thing you do, or reading the class?” Turns out he hated reading, the class, but read all the time outside class.

Microcosmos (video) — Noticing the World Around Us

This is a re-blog from my classroom website. I thought it might be interesting for this blog, too, since I’ve been thinking a lot about slowing down to notice important things.

*   *   *   *   *

I saw this movie, Microcosmos (1996) through Netflix and wanted to pass it on to you as something that might be interesting to see with the kids.

Microcosmos explores the close-up world of insects and other small critters that live all around us. The photography is stunningly beautiful. Especially interesting to me was some fantastic footage of a fishing spider bringing air underwater on its abdomen hairs; a very persistent dung beetle; a high-drama contest between two stag beetles; and a very puzzling train of millipedes that follow each other across a mudflat.

The video most definitely gave me the feeling that the world is a very fascinating place, indeed, if only I take the time to notice, to watch, to wait.

Microcosmos might be a great way to introduce kids to a close look at a small patch of yard, or tracks in the snow. The fresh snow we’ve had offers so many ways to observe things that would normally escape our notice. For instance, today I saw the place in the barbed wire fence that the fox uses to enter the prairie for his daily hunting rounds. I saw wing marks where a hawk or an owl tried to catch a vole. And I can see where the chickadees hang out to eat the sunflower seeds from the bird feeder.

It makes me happy to imagine all that life happening around me.

The video is about 1 hr, 15 minutes and contains only about 4 sentences of narration at the end of the video (in French.) Here’s a 2 minute trailer.

What Failure Teaches Me (…more thoughts on reading nonfiction)

8-18-12 design scans 006
Photo Credit: Katie Walker via Compfight

Of course, I love it when things work out well. I like to celebrate those moments here.

But I also want to use this space to think about things that don’t work out so well. As I tell the children, learning is often messy, unclear, our ideas emerge partly formed and take some effort to make them clearer. From that vantage point, the beauty that might someday be often takes awhile (and some squinting!) to see. So, writing only about the successes doesn’t seem completely honest, since much of what I experience is that messiness of learning. I wrote earlier this year; I pick my way through the jungle.

So here is a failure of sorts that points toward something interesting.

If you’ve read my posts recently, you’ll notice that I’m thinking (obsessed?) about how to help students linger in the ideas of text that do not have a narrative focus. One thought I had was that I might use a practice common to scientific thinking as a way to help students linger with an idea: the creation of a model that could be probed and revised.

Well, it turns out that on some level I must have already been thinking about this problem because I actually had students generate a model as a way to help me understand their thinking about the way sound is produced and energy is transferred via sound waves.

Why didn’t I see this as a rich source to mine for the question I’ve been asking? I don’t know! It took writing on the blog before I saw what was right there in front of me. Sometimes the parts of my brain are like an old couple, living together side by side, thinking their own silent thoughts.

So here’s what we did.

In a learning unit on sound, we conducted experiments and read in small group some short informational pieces about various aspects of sound production and reception. As a culminating activity, I presented the kids with a simple hand-drawn picture and asked the kids to explain how sound got from them to me. In essence, I was asking the children to create a model. As part of their explanation, I asked that they describe in as great a detail as they could how this happens, but that they also identify their uncertainty, too. I told them that the best scientists are most interested in the parts that they don’t know or still have questions about because these are the next areas to explore.

Here are some examples of what the students drew, and how they identified their uncertainties. Here is Student A’s model:


Student A’s model is sort of sketchy and shows that through our discussions and reading I wasn’t able to help her create a very detailed model of how sound travels. However, she does a terrific job of identifying some of the areas where she is uncertain, and offers some tentative explanations: “Maybe the wind carries the sound.”

One of my failures, here, I think was that I didn’t make creating this model the focus of our learning so it could provide a framework from the beginning, If I would have done that, we could more easily track what we learned and what wasn’t learned, and been able to create richer descriptive language. (Richly descriptive mentor texts could have also helped!)

Here’s another example, Student B:



Student B’s model shows some clear details about the various steps in the process — the necessity of some organ in our throats to produce sound, the way the ear receives sound, the presence of “sound waves” — and a clear sense that he didn’t know how sound was produced in the larynx other than that vibrations were produced. Also, the notion of sound waves was mentioned, but not questioned, which I thought was interesting.

Another of my failures illustrated here was that if Student B and Student A could have talked together about their models, if they could have lingered over them a bit more, but in conversation with each other, then both Student B and Student A would have been able to form a better, more complete model and, crucially, a more complete set of questions.

Here’s another model from Student C:


Student C’s model very clearly identifies steps, and some of the parts that must be needed. I was very pleased with how he admitted large areas of uncertainty ( a willingness to admit NOT knowing) including a concern over the structure of waves (“I don’t know how sections become sections.”) Wow.

This model represents still another layer of failure for me. We hadn’t talked about compression waves, but had I known his concern earlier I could have easily found written text (and video!) that shows how vibrations propagate compression waves. This might have brought us into the conceptual swamp of molecules in gases like air (but, heck, why not, eh?) But even if that wasn’t understood by everyone, at least then everyone would have realized that the metaphor of “waves” needed to be further unpacked to make it sensible, even if they couldn’t quite understand how they worked. (This is only fourth grade, right?)

So, what to do?

One way this points me is toward using models as a repository of our current thinking as we read informational text that doesn’t have a narrative focus. If we had a model to talk about, that we might have lingered on, that we could have used it to hone our description, we could have used it to identify and explore areas of uncertainty. We could have used it as a way to talk to each other so we could all develop an increasingly complex conceptual understanding of some pretty complicated ideas. We might have used this model to reinforce a crucial element of scientific inquiry; that is, we could have mapped the unknown territory, the place where scientists love to explore because that’s where the cool stuff lies.