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Virginia Journal of Education

Object Lesson

What object-based inquiry learning is, and how you can use it in your classroom.

by Patricia Herr

You’ve probably heard of object-based inquiry learning before, but your days are already filled with differentiating instruction, formal and informal assessments, grading, behavior modification plans and meeting the needs of your students, all while incorporating the Standards of Learning. Is inquiry-based learning just one more thing to add to your day? Is it a learning “fad” that will go away just like so many others have?

I don’t think so. Once you find out more about it, and try it for yourself with your students, you’ll see that object-based inquiry learning is a valuable instructional tool that gives you more time to meet the individual needs of your students, whether they are gifted or they need more one-on-one time, without sacrificing the SOLs.

What is object-based inquiry learning?
It’s exactly what it says it is: Object-based inquiry learning is using objects to aid in understanding, using teacher- and/or student-generated questions. The questions that the teacher generates are well thought out, open-ended questions that help students grasp what’s being taught. Teachers lead students toward those concepts by setting the stage for exploration and investigation, sometimes by beginning with a story that presents the students with a problem to solve. The objects being investigated by the students will be a part of the story, and lead the students to use higher-level thinking skills.

What does an object-based inquiry lesson look like?
Elementary students can sometimes find the idea of animal adaptations difficult to understand. However, most know something about animals, either through pet ownership, visits to the zoo, or through reading stories. This lesson will build on that knowledge. Students are arranged in small groups. The objects in this lesson are pairs of plaster cast animal prints, including a front print and a back print. The lesson begins by telling the students about a “cold case” at the National Zoo. In 2003, a bald eagle was found dead in its enclosure. It had been killed by an animal, but the zoo could not determine which animal. The zoo would like to prevent something like this from happening again and has asked for help from the class. It had been a rainy night, and there were all kinds of foot prints around the atrium, some belonging to animals in the zoo, and others from animals found in the natural environment. The zoo would like the students to investigate the animal foot prints, and try to eliminate the animals that would not or could not have killed the bald eagle, and perhaps even decide which animal was guilty of killing the eagle.

Beginning with the reading of a news clip, the teacher asks the class if all animals use their feet for the same purposes. After a short discussion on this, she then asks them to brainstorm in small groups the uses animals have for their feet and to be prepared to share their answers with the class. After a few minutes of discussion, each group shares their answers, which the teacher records for the class to refer to as they begin their research into the animal tracks. Then, the teacher asks the groups to decide on some questions they’ll need to answer about their animal track in order to decide what animal the tracks might belong to, and whether or not that animal could have killed the eagle. These questions are also recorded for all to see. Each group picks five questions to answer, but can answer more than five, or come up with new questions as they investigate their animal track. Each small group is handed a set of tracks. The tracks are very diverse, including small mammal tracks, larger mammal tracks and a few bird tracks. Students begin by making measurements of their tracks, and some general observations. Directions on how to measure the tracks are given by the teacher. One person in the group sketches the track on their recording sheet. Soft clay is made available to them for the making of an imprint from the plaster molds. Resources, including field guides that include animal tracks, and websites that include tracks and measurements, along with information about those animals, are provided. As the students make a hypothesis based on their information, they can check it by comparing their information to their research. If  they feel they have found the animal that belongs to the tracks, then they would find out everything they could about the animal, and how it uses its feet. They will also decide if that animal could be a suspect in the cold case. Although students are working in small groups, each student may come to his or her own conclusions. Each student then writes a letter to the zoo telling them of their findings, including whether they feel this animal was the one who killed the eagle. They support their theories with the information gathered through research.

The role of the teacher
In this scenario, much of the teacher’s work is done before the lesson begins. She has researched news stories, or devised a story to create the problem, and gotten the plaster tracks. She has chosen the objectives of the lesson, and looked for cross-curricular connections. The research portion of the lesson may fit into the reading standards, and the persuasive writing may fit into the writing standards. Following the scientific method and testing and retesting hypotheses will fit into another standard of science outside of adaptations. Measurement may fit into the math standards. The teacher has also decided what instruction the students may need in order to complete the task, such as what measurements to take for the tracks. During the research part of the lesson, the teacher may decide to begin her teacher-directed lessons on adaptations, or formatting a business letter to the zoo, or how to write a persuasive paper, backing up theories with research.

Because the research the students are doing is independent work, the teacher has the freedom to circulate around the room, making observations and talking to groups or individual students about their work. She can gently guide students in the direction she would like them to take through questioning, and when questions arise from the students, she can answer them with thought-provoking questions that will help them answer the question themselves. This time also allows her to work with students who need more help, or, challenge those students who are finding the task easy. She may also decide when it’s a good time for students to share their information so other students can get ideas, or expand their search. When students have completed their tasks, and papers have been turned in, it’s the job of the teacher to pull all the information together and relate it to adaptations. She may go back to the original question, and ask why animals have different kinds of feet. She would relate their answers to her teacher-directed lessons on adaptations. To bring the student’s thinking to an even higher level, she may present pictures of three rabbits, including an arctic hare, a cottontail rabbit and a desert cottontail. Students can observe differences among the three rabbits, and hypothesize why each rabbit is different. The lesson has endless possibilities for enrichment, and is limited only by the time that is available.

The advantages of using inquiry
In this scenario, why didn’t the teacher just tell the students what the definition of adaptations was and give examples? Wouldn’t it have saved a lot of time?

There are so many advantages to using inquiry. Students may have heard the definition of adaptations by telling them, but would they remember it? Who owns that information if the teacher is the one telling the students what it is? Through discovery and exploration, students own the information they gather. They don’t forget it. Instead of leaving information in a notebook in their desks, students are thinking about what they are working on, even when they are not in the classroom. They’re going to go home and take another look at their dog’s paws. They’re going to be trying to solve this case, and by doing so, thinking about the adaptations of different animals, even if they don’t have a name for it yet.

Why didn’t the teacher just assign them an animal research project? Wouldn’t that have been easier? When one animal is assigned, only one animal is researched. By leaving the assignment open-ended, students are looking at and learning about many animals. This is what helps pull this concept together for them. In this lesson, it’s the students doing the work. The teacher has done her work by organizing the material. Students are working to answer the questions posed by the teacher, but they are also working to answer their own questions, formulated at the beginning of the lesson, which is very motivating for them.

You have the perfect opportunity to differentiate this lesson. Students who may need a little more help would get a track that would be a little easier to identify, and the teacher has the time to work individually with those students. Students who need to be challenged would get a track that may be a little harder to identify. There really is no right or wrong answer to this scenario, since even the zoo does not have the answer. All students have a correct answer if they follow the trail of the tracks through research. Students don’t have to be correct in this case, they just have to be able to verify their answers. This is very rewarding for students who don’t always feel success in the traditional classroom. We’ve all heard that success breeds success, and that is exactly what happens in the inquiry classroom.

How do I get started?
To begin, think about some difficult concepts you have to teach to your students, or think of those concepts you find yourself going over and over because the students just aren’t getting it. Think of objects that are easily accessible to you that could work into the lesson. Those objects don’t have to be expensive, and can come from nature, or your child’s toy box, or even your kitchen. Think of a problem the students could solve that would lead them to that concept. Then, start your planning. What questions could you formulate that would guide students in the direction you want to take them? What other resources do you need to make available? How can this lesson make all students feel successful? There are a lot of resources available on the World Wide Web on inquiry lessons, and you can do a search for any concept by starting your search with an “Inquiry lesson on…..” to start with someone else’s ideas, and then change them to suit your needs. There are also books available on inquiry-based learning that include how to set up a lesson, how to get started, and also provide sample lesson plans.

It also helps to start your journey through inquiry with a team member or someone else who is interested in trying it. Working with someone else will keep you motivated while you are trying it out, and give you someone else to bounce ideas off of. Talk to your librarian, who is a wealth of information and can help you with your research into inquiry as well as help you find the objects or resources you’ll need. But, take that first step. You’ll see a difference in the behavior of your students and in their motivation to learn new concepts and accept challenges.

Herr, a member of the Loudoun Education Association, is the county’s Elementary Science Resource Teacher. She is one of Virginia’s 2009 Regional Teachers of the Year.



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