Natural Phenomena – Students Questions from the Middle

As Hermine approaches on the east coast this Labor Day weekend we have a relevant post about student questioning from the middle school level on the topic of natural phenomena. Yesterday, I shared some examples of high school student questions from two different content areas. Today, I’ll be continuing our discussion of student questioning in the Guided Inquiry Design process as we move down the grades to examine some examples from Middle School.

At any level, student questions in Guided Inquiry are a cornerstone to the approach. Inquiry based learning can be defined as an approach to learning where students ask their own questions. Guided Inquiry is uniquely positioned to support teachers to design instruction where a path is paved that supports student questioning through the early phases of the process. 

Paige Holden, a middle school language arts teacher with her team designed an inquiry unit using the Dust Bowl as the starting point for study about natural phenomena.

The overarching question for the instructional design was, “What are the social, environmental, and economical effects of natural phenomena?”

In the design, the team of teachers and school librarian collaborated to determine a concept and overarching question that drove the instructional design. Next, a learning sequence was determined to address the content as students become curious and connect the content to their own lives and interests in the third space. In this unit, Paige and her team examined the standards and focused the inquiry path on social, economic and environmental factors of natural phenomena. They wanted all students to have a grasp of those components.

You can read more about the entire unit from Paige in her posts here and here and here.

The students identified their questions after substantial investigation through the first three phases of the design process. As you read the students’ questions you’ll notice their connection to

  1. Natural phenomena and
  2. One or more of the aspects in the Learning Team’s overarching question. (social, economic, and environmental factors)

Students Questions

What past theories have been developed to explain the Northern Lights, and how have the lights affected tourism in areas where they can be seen?

How did the formation of the Ice Age Impact the Earth and humans?

How do bioluminescent waves affect the ocean and its inhabitants?

How have the discovery and exploration of blue holes impacted different fields of scientific research?

What myths about the cause of the rainbow are evident in cultural and religious traditions?

What is the relationship between disappearances at sea and the Bermuda Triangle?

TAKING LEAP – the Inquiry Trust Fall

Inquiry based learning requires moving away from covering content and opens up to a more facilitated approach, where the teacher acts as a guide. Letting go of covering content is a shift for many educators for a variety of reasons,

  1. The testing climate (we teach so that our students can perform on a test)
  2. The perception of a need to control what students learn
  3. The pressures from outside related to content (curriculum and pacing).

We know that covering material doesn’t ensure students will learn it. Even so, have you ever heard teachers say, “We went over that!” “We covered that, I don’t know why they don’t know this!”

People using an inquiry learning model have taken a leap to trust the inquiry process and their students, that they will learn the content through the process. These questions show this is possible.

Interest has staying power with regards to learning, where material coverage does not. These students’ questions are a fine example that although each student won’t learn deeply about each one of the factors that the Learning Team indicated as essential, they will learn deeply about at least one as it relates to something they are truly interested in.

Let’s look at the student questions related to each factor. Keep in mind that although each student isn’t addressing them all by way of their own question, they are all part of this learning community (or Inquiry Community). From these questions we know that each student will walk away with two important understandings

  1. what a natural phenomenon is.
  2. natural phenomena do not occur in isolation and that it will have an effect on other things

Once the students gain an understanding of those key ideas as related to their own interest they come back together as an Inquiry Community to share their own learning. As they have gained expertise on their question, they will listen to what others have learned with a new layer of knowledge. Their own research will allow them to understand and connect to the other students’ content and be able to apply their own understanding to new content in all three areas. (Think transfer task!)

So how much of these questions will address what the teachers were looking for?

Social – Four of the six sample questions had a social element to it.

  • Tourism is a social activity,
  • impact on humans implies social connections,
  • cultural and religious traditions are socially constructed,
  • and human disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle has social implications.

Economic – It seems one student addressed the economic factors in the question about tourism.

Environmental – Each of these questions being around a different natural phenomenon will provide opportunities for every student to learn about the environmental factors as they learn about the phenomena itself.

The questions about the Ice Age and bioluminescence were centered in the environmental factors.

It’s clear that the learning team allowed students to branch off into areas of interest as long as it was related to natural phenomena and one (or more) of these factors. The variety of questions shows a commitment from the Learning Team to students finding their own interests within the content.

Asking real questions around the content through an inquiry based model while closing down time for covering content, opens up time for deeper learning and applying what students have learned to other essential learnings in authentic ways.  Thanks Paige for the great work and material to reflect on again.

More tomorrow on questions from our smallest inquirers!

Leslie Maniotes

Author Guided Inquiry Series

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