Primary Students Following A Path To Inquiry

Can primary grade students set their own direction for research? Can they develop their own topics? Build guiding questions? If good questions lead to more questions, than this is a terrific starting point because it has led me down a lengthy rabbit hole.

One of the skills we work on in the library is the ability to conduct research from start to finish including developing questions to identify an information need and guide research. I recently tried an activity called See, Think, Wonder with my second and first grade students. I found this style of questioning at Visible Thinking.org The activity was to have students observe something and record their thought process and following questions. The target skill I introduced was “I can develop research questions”. As usual, the results led me to more questions than answers:

Am I giving my students enough time to practice asking the questions?
Am I teaching students to recognize, honor, and follow the path of their own curiosity?
Do I show value for this in my teaching in a way students can see?
Am I giving them the tools to form their ideas into communicable questions and do they know how to find the answers?
Do I know how/when to get out of the way and let the students’ minds travel in their own direction?

I told students the goal was to develop an interesting question that would lead us on a path to new discoveries. I had the following expectations for my students:

  • observe a series of connected scenes
  • record some things you see that catch your attention
  • tell me in just a few words what it made you think about
  • tell me one related question you don’t know the answer to but it would be possible to find with a little research

We were using Google Expeditions which is a great introduction to virtual reality- students are viewing 360 degree images in 3D on smartphones through Viewmaster viewers with the teacher acting as a guide. I tried different Expeditions with different groups: traveling the digestive system; Mount Everest; the San Diego Zoo; the Juno spacecraft traveling to Jupiter. Each Expedition had 4-6 different scenes. As the teacher/guide I explained the basics of each scene, asked some questions, identified a few particular points of interest. Then I asked students to write down:

  • one thing they saw that was interesting to them,
  • what it made them think about, and
  • a question that they were wondering about?

I tried two different worksheet formats for recording student thoughts – one very loose one more structured.

The results were a very mixed bag from returning a blank page, to very surface level ideas, to deep intriguing tangents. Some filled in things they saw but said it didn’t make them think about anything and they didn’t have any questions. Some wrote questions that we already knew the answer to or were not possible to answer. I tried multiple approaches as a guide offering more or less information about the scenes. The responses didn’t seem as swayed by my actions or the worksheet used as I thought they would be. So one thing (re)learned – it’s not always about what I’m doing right now but something deeper is affecting the results.

Now I should mention that many of them blurted out all kinds of interesting questions throughout the lesson. When I prompted them by saying things like “Oh, that sounds like a great ‘I wonder…’ entry” I received skeptical looks. Why would that be their response? Did they think I was humoring them? Did they not realize that they had good questions in their own heads? Do I not give them enough opportunities to create their own questions and so they don’t know what the process feels like? Had I already offered enough information that they assumed they didn’t need any more? Were they actually thinking or just absorbing? Or did they just expect the event to end with an answer from the teacher?

I clearly have a lot of questions to guide my practice after trying this activity. Now I need to help my students discover their own questions and direct my teaching to guiding their path to answers. I really appreciate and recommend the resources at VisibleThinking.org They stress the importance of making questioning a regular activity and using a variety of question styles and formats. A great step to adding more student empowerment to any teaching practice.

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