The unit was introduced with our final task which was to design an article of clothing based on scientific principles about energy AND to design/conduct an experiment that would test one feature of the clothing design.
Though this was the main task, the other part of our unit was to learn how to support a scientific claim with experimental evidence and scientific reasoning. This can be a very time consuming process, if you really want students to understand how to do it and probably could have been a unit by itself. But, without a context, it wouldn't have been nearly as meaningful.
So, to make a long story short- we had a four month unit. But, when I really break down the learning targets, and look at the final products, it was time well spent. We also had three weeks off of school during this unit, did not have a five-day week for 6 weeks, and participated in "The Flame Challenge"- not to mention I only see students 7- 50 minute periods in every 9 days of school.
But, back to it. Why I love inquiry.
1. Inquiry is inherently differentiated.
By structuring a project so that everyone is trying to answer the same big question- but with their own ideas- students are able to have an access point no matter what their level. Everyone has the same baseline of background knowledge that we have learned about in class- our learning targets. However, because students had to do an experiment on one aspect of their design- students were doing experiments that went far far beyond the scope of our seventh grade curriculum.
In this particular case, students were researching hydrophobic/hydrophilic materials, the molecular structure of water as it relates to surface tension, the math behind the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, the molecular structure of Gore-Tex fabric, homeostasis and the hypothalamus, and many other topics that go above the written curriculum. There are also many students who spent their time doing much simpler experiments and researching further into topics that we'd discussed in class- how solar panels work, why those little flashlights are shakeable to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. Even my students who have learned English this year (an Italian boy and a Korean boy are good buddies and partnered for the project- their common language being English) still furthered their understanding of energy by looking into different ways that winter clothes are constructed and why.
2. Information gets "imprinted on your mind."
In preparation for a conference presentation, I interviewed some of my current and former students on how their thinking was different during a long-term, problem-based assessment versus a test. They offered some really interesting, and surprisingly insightful feedback about how/when/why to use projects vs. tests. They showed a really reflective nature to their view of school work and I realized that I should ask for this kind of feedback more often and from more of them.
Some of the more interesting quotes...
- "On a test, I'm just searching for the answers. On a project, I come up with the answers from what I know."
- "Understanding takes time because you have to break things down instead of just learning it the complicated way."
- "On a project you have to make up your own ideas and actually think. Your thinking has to be based on a lot of different things. Doing a project imprints the information on your mind."
These three quotes, all from seventh graders with differing abilities, really drive home for me that this is how classrooms need to be set up.
3. Inquiry breeds motivation.
A true inquiry unit requires students to hone skills far beyond just the basic academic skills. We have opportunities to work on the "soft skills" like time/task management, how to collaborate with others, how to self-monitor your own progress/process, and also how to figure out what parts of the tasks are personally interested and connected to each person. And, with the freedom to make their own choices (within a structure), students had autonomy and purpose- those things that Drive author Daniel Pink talks about for increasing intrinsic motivation. They were motivated (of course not 100% all of the time but a very high percentage) and with seventh graders this motivation often means that they are really enjoying what they are doing. Some of the best, most thoughtful student work I have ever collected came out of this project.
Some of our questions this year across the classes I teach are-
- How do humans manipulate reproduction in order to survive?
- How do scientists, know, something?
- What will life on Earth be like in 100 million years?