The atmosphere felt very different in my classroom a few weeks ago, as I began the hard work of teaching by getting out of the way.

I’ve always done inquiry science, but it has been more teacher-directed than I wanted. Over the summer I took an e-course in “Unleashing Student Passion” hoping to find a better approach. Isn’t that what summers are for? It’s the best time to look back at what worked well and what you could improve. In the summer of 2011, I went in search of ideas on how to develop more independent and critical thinkers.

The e-course, led by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (@snbeach), was challenging for me because it exposed so many places where I want to be better.  And not just a little better. A whole lot better.

Unleashing student passion for learning and specifically for science was my targeted area for improvement.  I needed to stop holding students back from becoming the learners they will need to be as they grow up. I have always helped students learn the science and be curious. But I knew it was time to take another step, to help the kids in my classroom kindle their own passion for learning and become self-starting.

As school resumed in late August, I took the plunge and began implementing what I’d been studying all summer. It was hard. I wanted to roam the aisles looking for kids who needed help and encouragement. Instead (with some effort) I chose to sit back and let them do all that for themselves, using the skills we had been talking about over several weeks — how to define and build a team and be a good communicator.

We’ve begun to practice those new learning skills by making observations and doing data collection. Big yawn? Not the way we’re doing it. I decided this would be the perfect work setting to test out some of the ideas Sheryl’s been teaching. Besides, we’ve spent hours talking about teamwork and defining what it takes to be a good teammate and communicating clearly. We’ve practiced body language and put on demonstrations of how we listen to each other.  So it was time for me to step back, hold my breath a little, and watch these kids put all they’ve been learning into action.

And away we go 

While I’ve done inquiry-based lessons before, this time I really, really let go.  I helped them with some set-up, gave them the minimum background knowledge, and then cut the strings. I left it to the student teams to pose questions that might interest them.

I also purposefully let them do it without me hovering. I told them I was strictly an observer today. I tried to empower them by not just telling but showing them that I trusted them to do the work. Although it was hard, I stayed at my desk, never strolled the aisles, asking questions or answering questions. I sat there intently concentrating on what they were doing and how they were interacting with each other.

Being present without being there

They knew I was present. That’s been a big point of the learning I’ve done this summer. I was there, watching without being depended on. Does that make any sense?

By the end of the period, I think they were shocked at how well they were capable of managing their own learning. And it was a revelation to me. I gained so much insight into what my students, individually and collectively, were capable of doing. I was able to spend almost the entire 45 minutes making observational notes: who were the leaders, who struggled, how they worked with their partner.

I ended up with an enormous new cache of information about each of them that I can use for lesson planning. This valuable data will be the basis for the next lesson I teach. I have to give many thanks to the “wayfinding” teachers who encouraged and supported me to try this. Thanks, Lani Ritter Hall and Dean Shareski—for showing me this lesson. I still have a long way to go but I think I’m getting it.


Pennies for thinking

How, you might wonder, do I know they got anything out of the experience? By the questions they asked. Turned loose from teacher expectations, they investigated their own questions and then started exploring other things that were of interest to them.   Here’s some of how it went.

We started with a typical observation/data collection activity: dropping water on a penny and counting the drops.


They posed questions that we captured via Twitter —


Screen shot 2011-08-26 at 8.08.20 PM

they started asking better and better questions….




Screen shot 2011-08-26 at 8.08.32 PM

They worked and worked at all these questions, some of which I was very dubious about when they proposed them. I’ll admit that some questions worked out and others ran into the troubles that I would have predicted. But here’s the big ah-ha: they’ve learned it for themselves now. It wasn’t the teacher telling them “no” and here’s why. Instead, they tried it, it didn’t work, they re-grouped and formulated another question to test. It wasn’t a big deal. It became routine scientific investigation, rudimentary though it certainly was.

I’m hoping this experience builds up their learning muscles so when we get to bigger topics they’ll feel the same way about roadblocks they encounter. Those roadblocks will be higher and wider, but maybe they’ll remember the value of persistence, something they’ve now had a taste of — dripping water onto pennies. Beginning steps. Simple activity. Experience gathered under our belts.

Unexpected pleasures are usually the best ones

My biggest joy today came from one of those goofy boy groups — the guys you love and who stress you out all at the same time.  They finished and sat there just seeing what would happen if…. They mostly made a mess until

discovered you could get a drop of water to “stick” to the penny

… even if you turned it upside down

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Then everyone had to try and replicate the results. With that accomplished, they starting firing off amazing questions. It was contagious. Success was breeding success everywhere in our classroom that hour. They measured the bulge of the water bubble over the side of the penny, concocting amazing ways of using rulers. They conferred and shared and suggested alternative ways of doing everything.  And all the while they were engaged.

I wish you could have seen their faces beaming and shouting across the room. “Hey Mrs. R, look at this!” Jumping to the next thing and then the next. I sent a big air high five across the room to congratulate them. These were their questions, their experiments and they owned it. Big time.

And it all happened because I got out of their way — and let them struggle a bit — so they could find their passion for learning science.


Photo credits (Creative Commons)

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Marsha Ratzel

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