To…Thinking and Beyond (Facts)

Paraphrasing the old Chinese proverb I would say,

“Teach your students facts and you empower them for a test. Teach them how to think, and you empower them for a lifetime.”

Having a good vision on education answers the WHY and is essential in our profession. But that is not enough. Because the next day you need to be in the classroom. And face curious minds that will need the HOW of learning. That is a hard and the most time-consuming part of our work. Hence I think it is more useful for educators out there to see others’ teaching and learning journey.

WARNING: This is the longest post I will ever write. I must be insane because long posts kill the number of readers but I have never seen a teacher’s effort to show the planning and learning process throughout a long period of time. I did it because it would have given me a better picture of strategies and vision of teacher had I seen it on someone else’s blog.

WARNING 2: My students are second-language learners. Romanian is their mother tongue (like mine).

Therefore…here is my teaching/learning journey …and how it unfolded the past month.

Briefly, my second graders inquired into wild animals and habitats, guided by the central idea, “Animals survive best in their habitat.” It might sound like a “nice” (over)done unit but there is more to it. We move past thematic units that cram all the information possible in a specific period of time and across all possible disciplines. We move past “cute” hands-on activities that do not illustrate anything but business and do not challenge kids to their potential.

How did this work?

Principle 1: Connect with prior knowledge

How? I just asked kids to tell me facts they know about animals. As simple as that. And then recorded them on a big paper in class, for everyone to see and, why not, learn from others.

Principle 2: Make students comfortable with terminology (so they can focus on ideas later on)

There were a few key-words that students were expected to encounter in their readings and discussions later on. Students selected them (e.g. species, habitat, survive, endangered etc). Then they paired up, looked some words up in dictionaries (either online, from the class wiki, or from regular hardcopy dictionaries), and shared with class.

Principle 2: Allow and encourage student questions

Let students ask questions right then, at the beginning of the unit. Yes, they will ask “skinny” questions. Closed questions. But they are part of learning: “How many wild animals are there?”, “What are the rarest wild animals?” etc.  I displayed them on our Wonder Wall.

Principle 3: Allow students to generate content. Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.

We focused on a very “big” word in our central idea: “habitats”. It was a concept we would need a lot in our inquiry. So I simply wrote the word in the centre of a big paper and encourage students to add:

         habitats they knew

         animals that might live in those habitats

I need not tell you that they came up with ALL the answers except one (they did not know about “tundra”). Don’t you just love it when you need not “teach”? …

*Note: I also downloaded and printed a huge world map that resembled a puzzle. The kids glued the pieces together (which reinforced their knowledge on continents and oceans, learned in another inquiry unit Maps and Explorers) and we could add each habitat on the map throughout our inquiry. They were not showed the habitats – they located them and colored them on the map.

Principle 4: Model thinking. Empower students to replicate the process.

Of course, as a language teacher, I needed to teach how to “read” informational reports, how to summarize information and how to process it. I printed a non-fiction text about tigers on a big A3 paper; I read-aloud each paragraph and thought-aloud (so students can “hear” my thinking – I tell them I “turn on” my brain volume). I slowly invited students to join-in and add their own thinking by placing post –its with “big” ideas (see photo). Next, as we have to gradually release responsibility, students paired up and had their own texts to work on and summarize information (visually, too).

Principle 5: Play games to practice thinking skills

Prior to the game I simply asked kids, “What do animals need in order to survive?” They came up with 4 answers but we selected together only three important ones: food, shelter, water.

Kids love play and I am fervent supporter of movement in elementary school. I used a game to anticipate the next learning target: The Deer Game. Basically, each kid had a different role: the “deer” have to run after “food”, “water” and “shelter” kids. Once they catch them, these turn into more deer.

At the end of the game students could conclude what I expected them to: the number of a species in a habitat influences the habitat to a great extent. Not only could they figure out the big idea, but they used CONCEPTS in relation to the game:

CAUSATION: Because the number of deer increased the vegetation and water were less and less.

CHANGE: Due to the use of too much water, food and the need for shelter the habitat changes.

CONNECTION: Deer depend on the habitat which provides them food, water and shelter.

Principle 6: Encourage students to make connections

Bingo! The Deer Game was the link to the next big concept: food chains. I used the flipped class method: I posted an explanation of the food chain topic on the class blog prior to “teaching” it. The next day I asked students to teach ME what the food chain was and how it worked. They were brilliant!

Principle 7: Use technology to reinforce knowledge

I created two online games so students could deepen their understanding. They played food chain games, practiced on customized online quizzes, and even created some for their peers.

 *See this page of our class wiki to see what online resources we used in this unit.

Principle 8: Encourage students to think visually

Visual thinking is essential in brain processing so I modeled how to turn a written text into a visual organizer. Kids had a different animal and practiced in their Learning Journal.

Principle 9: Encourage kids to build on the acquired knowledge

I modeled the tiger adaptation and kept asking students, “Why do you think it has retractile claws? How would a flexible backbone help the tiger? Why do you think the tigers fur has black and brown patterns?” etc. The students “got” the idea and I asked them to come up with their OWN examples of animal adaptation and explain them. They would hardly stop!

Principle 10: Encourage kids to THINK BIG

The next day, I told students, “OK, we know lots of information about animals. We know lots of stuff about how they adapt. But how can we organize all that information into a BIG THINKING MAP?”

And yes, kids are smart. They brushed over all the details and came up with a great mind map (see below). Basically, they identified major types of adaptations! (physical appearance, physiological etc).

I always try to encourage them to “think big” by asking them: “What do you think you will need to understand and remember not the next week, not the next month, but the next year – and it is worth remembering?”

Principle 10: Immerse kids in real-life situations. Use these as a trigger for thinking.

Going to the zoo was essential in my planning. Not only could kids see real wild animals, but that would prepare them for a new thinking session. We had the chart below during our trip; we completed just the first two columns there, and the last one in class.

Upon return, I had 4 choices spread on the whiteboard and a single sentence in the middle of it: Animals are better off in zoos because they have food, water and shelter there. The strategy is called the Four Corners: Strongly agree/ Agree/ Disagree/ Strongly disagree. It is used when ethical issues are raised (war, gender conflicts, poverty, media bias etc).

Step 1: Without any other prompt, kids posted their names under each choice. They were sure of their options!

Step 2. Challenging students’ opinions: kids were given a list of pro and con arguments for having zoos. Each read carefully, became a bit puzzled and thought. Bingo! Complex issues are never white and black. You need to rethink. You need to consider more points of view. THAT is where I wanted to bring students to. So what did they do? Well, they placed their names in a slightly different category. A more balanced approach. Of course a very vivid discussion followed.

Principle 11: Stimulate creativity

After the kids posted their option I asked them to create a poster using this app to illustrate their choice (see some samples below).

Principle 12: Use thinking strategies that allow for deeper thinking


After kids made their estimations, I provided them with the real data – which, in some cases, completely reshaped their thinking and stirred discussions.

The Whys Stair

Write a statement on the whiteboard and keep asking Why questions. This helps students deepen their understanding of the CAUSATION concept (they “dig” deeper and deeper into the problem until they find a root). My example was: Some species are endangered. (/ Why?/ Because people hunt them./Why?/ So they can get their fur? /Why?/ etc…). After this think-aloud with student input, they practiced the strategy in pairs and then independently (from different prompts).

Principle 13: Review knowledge in a more challenging and collaborative way

Summative assessments are necessary from now so we played Jeopardy! in teams using Bloom’s taxonomy. Nothing was based on facts – but on understanding .

Principle 14: Multimedia stimulates creativity. It also appeals more to emotional intelligence.

I created PPTs, I showed videos and breathtakingly beautiful photos throughout the entire unit. That helped students react in more powerful ways, ignite discussions and encourage debates. I also used this approach to create teach students about design, effective use of fonts, colors, shapes etc.

*Source of photos in my PPT above: World Wild Life

Throughout the entire unit of inquiry, students had Learning and Reflection Journals. They would write, doodle and reflect based on some given prompts: What have I learned? What would I like to know more about? What am I proud of? What do I still have difficulty with? What activities did I enjoy best? etc. 

We used photo tools, VoiceThread and other online sources to collaborate and create.

Kids invented new habitats for given (fantastic) animals. And did the opposite as well – invented new species based on given habitats. They had to apply their knowledge of habitat, adaptation and food chains in a new context.

They would also devise their own inquiry process, suggest final project formats, find materials, research, create and present their work. They establish criteria for the process (inquiry) and product (their end of the unit projects), assess themselves, reflect on their learning journey etc. Below are two samples of what their final projects look like.

*Elenis: Draft

 *Pitu: Glogster

They guided their inquiry according to 8 big concepts: Form, Function, Causation, Change, Connection, Perspective, Responsibility, Reflection. These 8 concepts are transdiciplinary. Think of each of them and relate them with anything – from , say, multiplication (What is multiplication?  How is it connected to addition? How do multiplication results change if we use other numbers? etc) to language (e.g. Adjective: What is an adjective? How is it connected to nouns? How does an adjective change into an adverb? etc).

If I haven’t bored you enough…I would love a comment. Tell me what I could improve. What you would have done differently.

Thank you for reading!

About CristinaM.

21 years of teaching.
This entry was posted in Inquiry. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to To…Thinking and Beyond (Facts)

  1. vicit says:

    Wow! I’m impressed. What a lovely unit. I am in a high school, but may I show it to a few teachers who are looking for ways to get ‘out of the box’ in their teaching?


    • Cristina says:

      I share same feelings and thoughts. I am a language teacher and looking for new ideas about who to do more inquiry into my teaching. you just did!


  2. Cristina says:

    I have my own blog and addressed the “out of the box” thinking here and creativity here . If you browse the tags, you will find more posts on inquiry, creativity and authentic learning.
    Thank you for the comment.


  3. Heidi Siwak says:

    So impressed with your work and the documentation of the process. Well done!


  4. Libby Miller says:

    Very impressed!!!! I am going to share this with my PYP school. You really take us on a journey of your unit of inquiry. Thank you!


  5. Cristina says:

    Thank you for dropping by – and also for the comment! 🙂


  6. Jo says:

    Thanks so much. I enjoyed reading your post and am keen to apply these principles. Thanks for the description and for all the useful links.


  7. Cristina says:

    Thank you for reading and for the comment, Jo!


  8. juliafoth says:

    Thanks for a great blog post – I wasn’t bored at all! :-). I teach in higher education and a lot of what you say about how children learn and what they enjoy applies equally to my experience with adults.


  9. Ada says:

    Thanks a bunch for posting!


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