An inquiring class

Meena Sriram

einstine Physics is one subject that can be very fascinating as children can apply concepts and see the consequences immediately. It is less abstract than the other sciences thus leaving little scope for imagination. Considering that the present generation, like most in the past, prefers to discover their learning, it is only natural that a physics or science class provides an opportunity to discover. Many times when ideas are given to people they don’t really carry as much value as when they are arrived at and executed. Being adults in the environment of children, every teacher deserves to give every child such an opportunity. To allow children to discover. The urge to discover is innate in any animal. Every animal discovers for itself. Why deprive children?

Within a montessori environment, the teacher’s role is to ensure that the lessons or activities focus on the “human tendencies,” which include the need “to explore, move, share with a group, be independent and make decisions, create order, develop self-control, use imagination, work hard, repeat, concentrate, and perfect one’s efforts.”This philosophy can be conveniently carried out in a regular school where children are just as eager to learn and inquiring science sessions are the gateway to exploration.

Science classes or laboratory exercises can be one of two kinds – a teacher-led classroom or a student – inquiring classroom. Learners are exposed to more possibilities of explorative learning when the onus rests on them. Working hands-on using different kinds of material to put together pieces or solutions to create a product enables every learner to contribute and assess for himself the truth behind the laws of science.

A simple breakdown of the components of the two kinds of approaches to teaching:

Teacher centric Contents Learner centric
Reveals the conclusion of the investigation Title Provides a general focus on the content area to be investigated
Describes, specifically, what should be discovered by the end of the investigation Background information Provides, when necessary, scaffolding or supporting information or is ABSENT
Spells out, for all students, the independent and dependent variables Question Suggests an area in which students can investigate their own questions
Specifically prescribes every tool or material that will be used Material Suggests equipment likely to be useful or is ABSENT
Describes, in exact detail, step-by-step, every action that will be taken by every student Procedure Suggests several general techniques likely to be useful, or resources where these techniques can be researched, or is ABSENT
Provides a data table stating exactly what data all students will collect Data May provide guidance on what types of data will be useful. Usually, however, the type of data and how it is collected is left to the learner
Provides a template with all labels and numbers already present allowing students to anticipate the kinds and range of data expected Graph Graph paper may be provided or technology appropriate for different types of graphing
Provided by the teacher or the expected conclusion is elicited with a leading question. Often, the conclusion has been foreshadowed by all the other components of the lesson, from the title onward. Conclusion Students are asked to draw their own conclusions and are expected to, no matter what the conclusion, provide evidence and reasoning to support the conclusion.

Understanding this further it is essential to keep in mind and appreciate the positive aspects of both types of sessions, teacher-centered and learner-centered.

Title
The title, in the analysis, tends to describe ahead of time to the learners the content and perhaps the procedure and conclusion of the exercise in a teacher-centered approach. In contrast, a student-centered approach will enable the learners to explore and arrive at a conclusion on their own, which in a sense, will empower the learner to move on and investigate.

For instance, if the teacher were to ask learners to find out ‘how increase in the ramp height will impact speed’ she/he follows it up by revealing the whole exercise and limits the possibility of exploration by indicating that ramp height is connected to speed. If the same can be re-titled as factors that affect motion, the learners will perhaps work on their own conclusions and the sense of achievement will be complete.

Background information
Most sessions include reminders of background information where the concepts and content for the research are delivered in detail. Learners do require this amount of knowledge before setting up and investigating through their experiments. However, in a learner-centered approach, the teacher will ensure the content is provided much ahead of the investigations, allowing the learners to form connections with their previous learning and draw new learnings. For instance, if the challenge or investigation for the learners is to build a bridge, the learners can be provided with information on the type of material to be used or available and the depth of the place/water body. The learners can arrive at all other factors by using prior content knowledge.

Question
‘How does the increase in height of the ramp impact motion?’ is a fairly investigative question. The same is varied but less investigative when asked as, ‘how does the increase in height of the ramp increase the speed of the rolling car?’ With the objective of the lab session set, it is even more challenging for the learner to set his own question or questions given the objective of testing the factors affecting motion.

Improvising by adding a motor to the car.
Improvising by adding a motor to the car.
Materials and procedures
If the materials are arranged in a certain place following a certain pattern, it is a good idea to share the same with the learners. Given this situation, the teacher can save time by allowing the learners to move around the lab and pick the necessary materials and be responsible for them. When the investigations are learner-generated, they know best what to try and it will save a lot of time and energy of the teacher and the ownership is now transferred to the learner who has to now not only pick the right material but use them in the appropriate manner and be accountable for them and succeed in his investigation.

Allowing learners to make their plans will surely involve a longer time period and more messing up and cleaning up. The positive side to this is that they may come up with newer ideas and arguments which will enhance the process of learning. Students obviously will have more investment in an investigation of their choice.

Data and graphs
When data tables are provided, the learners will know exactly what to measure and how. If the learners follow their thoughts, the teacher might have to provide the learners a specific time frame so they can hasten their procedures and collect the data they value to prove their investigations. In a learner-centered session, the teacher will be required to trigger the thinking of the learners by asking appropriate questions for which answers will have to be found. The teacher will have to scaffold learning here not revealing the end of the journey but keeping them occupied and searching. When data is created by the learners they can create their own representation of the same, thus allowing them to choose the best possible method to display the collected data of both dependent and independent variables.

eureka Conclusion
A learner who has the freedom of using his ideas and basic content, will definitely have pride in writing down the conclusion of his investigation. This conclusion will also be justified with respect to the material used, time taken, application of content, success of product and the like. In most cases, learners tend to arrive at a common conclusion which may be replicated from another investigation.

Keeping these arguments in mind, learners were asked to familiarize their science concepts with respect to each topic. A sample of one of the sessions has been provided to comprehend the methodology better.

The day of the investigation normally began with brainstorming on how one could construct a bridge and what factors one should keep in mind to do so. The learners were then introduced to the material available, for instance metal rods, or paper, or straws, or anything. The learners then broke into groups to plan their bridges. They listed the material required and sketched the ideal structure. The teacher reminded them of the ability of bridges to carry weight. Again, the learners went back to their plans and modified. Next, they were given a time frame in which they should complete construction and get ready for testing. Thus, the learners were completely occupied and shared each other’s perspectives. Once the testing was done, the groups were again allowed to strengthen their masterpieces. Learners now understood the finer details of science. This approach empowered learners to try and test before they accepted and believed.

The author conducts science sessions for children of various age groups in collaboration with Kids Invent India in Chennai. She can be reached at meenasriram@gmail.com.