Book study: Starting with Science, Chapter 5: Designing an Inquiry Unit

I am so excited about inquiry-based teaching these days! Eventually I’d like to learn how to incorporate it in all subjects, but for now I am starting with science. For the next 7 weeks, I’ll be posting a summary and relevant resources from each chapter of the book Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry by Marcia Talhelm Edson. I’ll also add a few of my thoughts in there as well! Starting with Science book study on TeachRunEat

This was by far the most useful chapter in terms of direct classroom implementation of inquiry-based science! I’m super excited because I tried my best to do a real inquiry unit this winter. It was definitely challenging, and I don’t think I did it very well, but it’s a learning curve and this chapter proved to be very helpful. (Unfortunately I read the chapter after doing my inquiry unit on weather, so it will hopefully be even better next time!)

Some of the most meaningful takeaways from this chapter:

Inquiry units CAN be based on standards.

Ideally an inquiry unit would stem from something that the kids have expressed interest in. This is the most exciting and effective way of teaching. But it’s hard, as a public school teacher, to reconcileszzs my desire to teach what the kids are most interested in, with my obligation to teach the required curriculum for science (and all other subjects). My kids were SO interested in space this winter. They wanted to know everything about how the earth moves around the sun, how long it takes to get to space, how many planets there are. They had so many thoughtful questions, and it would have been so cool to take that intrigue and use it to teach the nature of science. But I basically had to squash their curiosity because there was no time to teach about space. (Although full disclosure – I did check out a bunch of space books from the library, and carved out 30 minutes to watch a Bill Nye the Science Guy about space. Gotta love Bill Nye.)

That is such a frustrating aspect of teaching with required (read: scripted) curriculum – kindergarteners are FILLED with curiosity and love of learning at all times. And so many times I can’t help them learn the new things they are interested in because I have to make time for writing personal narratives or writing teen number sentences.

Anyway, I digress. What is cool is that this book made it clear that inquiry unit ideas CAN come from a district requirement or kit-based materials. (FOSS Science is what our district requires, and it’s the ultimate kit-based curriculum!) One positive spin to teaching young students is that they will be interested in almost any topic that we want to study, so I don’t have to worry much about engagement – as long as I teach it in way that allows room for inquiry.

Teachers should research the topic first, and write down the understandings they hope for students to reach by the end of the unit.

At the Education for Sustainability institute I attended, we learned a bit about the Understanding by Design framework for teaching, and this also emphasizes the importance of knowing what “enduring understandings” you hope for kids to come to by the end of your unit. It helps to write down the big ideas or questions that you want to pursue during the unit. They suggest starting with a broad question (such as “What do children need to understand about this topic?”) and writing down a web of more specific questions that you hope for children to explore. This will help you narrow down where the unit will go. The book has an awesome example of an inquiry unit on pets that the author did, including the list of questions they generated at the beginning of the unit.

Use KLEW charts.

I love this! Instead of the traditional Know-Want to Know-Learned charts, make a chart that is a little more in line with the nature of science:

K: What do we think we know?

L: What did we learn?

E: What is our evidence?

W: What are still wondering?

I love this because it allows for kids to share all the info they think they know on the topic before we begin to study it, whether or not the info is correct. (All K-2 teachers have witnessed the adorable and inaccurate ideas that kids come up with when making a KWL chart…)

It also emphasizes the importance of evidence, asking kids to prove how they know something. Hooray for using literacy buzz words in science!

Have research groups.

This was revolutionary for me! I seriously didn’t understand how you could honor what individual students were interested in, without swaying from the main topic. But! You can do whole group stuff at the beginning of the unit, and then build in time for research groups after a while. When you’re studying a big topic (like weather, in my class), lots of individual interests are peaked. For example, about half my class was fascinated by tornadoes and hurricanes, while the other half was split between wanting to know more about rainbows and lightning.

Enter research groups! I split the class into groups and gave them each a bunch of non-fiction books on their topic of interest. They “read” the book (or looked at the pictures) and then came up with three facts about their topic. Then I used these free Research Report books for them to write down their facts and draw pictures. When they were all finished, we presented them to another class.

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The whole process was such a cool integration of reading, writing and science. Unlike during Writer’s Workshop, I didn’t hear a single complaint about having to sound out words! It was also a really neat way to demonstrate how scientists learn something new – they ask a question, gather information through research, and report what they learn to others.

One more note: In addition to reading non-fiction books for gathering information, the book also strongly encourages inviting in guest speakers (for “expert interviews”) and taking field trips (called “research trips”). In an ideal world I would have done this, but…one step at a time!

The next chapter has tips from teachers who teach inquiry-based units. Looking forward to reading it!