Five Whys to Deepen Thinking

Utwo Boss elevage le courtal via Compfight

I am constantly looking for ways to lower the bar for students while raising the level of thinking in our classroom.  In fact, one reason I like a simple tool like the Notice/Wonder chart, which I first heard about through Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s terrific book, What Readers Really Do, is that anyone can notice and everyone can wonder.1 The bar is low, but oh my, the thinking that emerges can be heady, indeed.

In that spirit, this past school year I played with a way to deepen our thinking about narrative text and to provide a way to generate a summary. It starts in a surprising place, though: the old SWBS chart. In the past, I’ve found that the Someone-Wanted-But-So chart gives students an easy entry into narrative text and helps them summarize what they are reading. The downside is that the tool often yields very simplistic and formulaic thinking. It becomes something to fill in, rather than a tool for thinking.

a more beautiful questionAfter reading A More Beautiful Question last summer, I decided to add a thinking protocol, called the Five Whys, to deepen our SWBS thinking. 2 The procedure is simple: ask five “why” questions about a single proposition. Since the SWBS chart is a series of propositions, and since one of the key aspect of any narrative is the conflict between the desire of a character and the ways that the real world impinges on the character’s desires — basically between the W (wanted) and the B (but) — I asked the children to focus on these parts when asking Five (or so) Whys.

To introduce the protocol, I asked the children to think about a simple story like Cinderella.

In the past, a student might have summarized the story something like this:3

  • Cinderella was a girl who lived with her step-mother and step-sisters. She had to do much of the work around the house. (S)
  • She wanted to go to the ball. (W)
  • But her step-sisters would not let her. (B)
  • So a fairy godmother helped her go the ball where she met the prince. (S)
  • Then, the clock struck midnight and the magic wore off, she left and dropped her glass slipper on the way out. (T)
  • Finally, the prince slipped the glass slipper he found on Cinderella’s foot and they lived happily ever after. (F)

The frame helps with the re-telling of the story, but look what happens when you add in the Five Whys protocol, especially to the W/B segments.

Proposition: Cinderella wanted to go to the ball. (W)

  1. Why might she want to go to the ball?4 So she could marry the prince.
  2. Why might she want to marry the prince? Ah…now you can see this going someplace interesting. Why, indeed? There are several places the kids went with this:
    • a) Because she is poor and marrying him would make her rich. Why might she have to marry a prince in order to not be poor?
    • b) Because she wanted a more glamorous life than scrubbing floors and taking care of ungrateful step-sisters all the time. Why might she have to do all the work for her step-sisters? Or, Why might she have to marry to get the life she wants?

Now we can see that these questions, only 3-deep, bring us to some interesting places. Given questions like these, we might go back into the story to try to understand Cinderella’s character better. What was it about her that made it difficult to stand up to the step-sisters? Or, conversely, what was it about their power that made it difficult to overcome? And, why is marrying someone else the answer this story provides?

Or, we might look outside the story to think about what options are “off the table” in a traditional fairy tale, options that would lead Cinderella towards a more independent solution to her desire.

I think what made it work was that the SWBS framework gave a “low-bar” way into the thinking. But the thinking didn’t stay low-bar because we layered the Five Whys protocol on top of our initial thinking.

All of this makes me wonder whether one key to deeper thinking is contained not so much in the doorway through which we enter a project, so much as how — or simply, that — we follow-up on the initial thinking.

At any rate, I was impressed with the simplicity of the protocol. I’ll be exploring it more next year.

  1. I’ve been interested to see how Joe Schwartz (Exit 10A) is making use of this tool in math. Schwartz has altered tasks like “textbook” questions by removing the culminating question, leaving just the description of a number story or the numbers of a number sentence. Then he asks the children to notice and wonder given the information he’s provided. Very cool, I think, for two reasons: 1) it lowers the bar for participation so everyone can begin thinking; 2) it makes a habit of these two thinking practices by making thinking visible. See the work of Harvard’s Project Zero for more about making thinking visible.
  2. This protocol is used by one of the major Japanese auto companies, Honda, I believe, as a thinking heuristic.
  3. Several years ago I asked students to consider adding an additional Then/Finally to the frame.
  4. By the way, I try to get the kids to use the word “might” whenever they ask a question because it elicits provisional-type thinking, rather than absolute “thesis-type” thinking. A thesis can come later.

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!