Thinking: Shaken Not Stirred

prov·o·ca·tion  (prv-kshn) n.

1. The act of provoking or inciting.

2. Something that provokes.

Our brain needs it. To engage. To learn. To remember.

In an inquiry-centered environment learning provocations abound. They motivate, sustain, invite to future wonder.

The recipe? Confusion, strong reaction, interest. One or more.

What are some ways to put that into practice in a classroom?

1. Photos

Because they are worth a thousand words.

Use various strategies:

– I See / I Think / I Wonder

– Silent Conversation

– Musical Tables etc.


There are millions of photos available that can be used in inquiry on various concepts – poverty, conflict, power, gender, multiculturalism, pollution – basically anything and everything.

Where is this beautiful city with skyscrapers? I bet you wouldn’t have guessed – nor did the students.


It is in Africa, more exactly in Congo. Who would have known since we are usually presented *this* (below)?


The power of photography. Change perception. Change thinking. Change feelings.

2. Photos and writing


I always use high quality photographs and add intriguing, confusing, or simply powerful words. If they are copyrighted I use them in class only. Have I told you I hate Clipart and I use only real-life photos with the kiddos? Try it. It makes all the difference in the world.

3.  Posters

Whenever I use posters I am looking for simplicity…even minimalism “because it eliminates the obvious and adds the meaningful”.

If it is a controversial issue or one that can be viewed from multiple perspectives I always bring forth one side of the story, let children react (through post-its, drawings, verbally), and only afterwards present them the other viewpoint. That creates a stronger tension because they are forced to re-view their first impression.


*You can print your posters in a really big format here.

4. Videos

Need I say how important they are in triggering thought and emotion? I guess not.

When I select videos I am looking for image quality, music (if any), and time. The shorter, the better. Also, I prefer videos where the meaning is grasped at the end so the students’ expectations rise.

Watch this one to see what I mean.


Yes, plain quotes on plain paper. The impact can be astounding if you add other tricks (i.e. reveal it slowly, play music, write it on a huge paper and place it on the door or an unexpected yet visible location, cut it in pieces and add each piece one at a time etc).

 ”The more we have,

the less we are.”

(I used it in a unit on resources – needs vs wants, consumerism)

Powerful quotes are everywhere on the internet now so…it just takes time to find the ones that suit your lesson target.

6. Provocative statements

These depend on the topic you invite your students to inquire into. One way to make them provocative is to present a biased view (see below). Other ways are changing intentionally some key-words, twisting the meaning etc.


Provocative statements can be made or found in math, art, music, geography…basically anything.

Another trick is to cover a part of the poster or photo and invite students to say/write what they think it is. Look at this photo below. Cover the bottom half. What would you say about it?

714efdcbf087820b33f05f84ff41fedb - Copy

Well…what about it now?


This is a photograph from Fars News Agency depicting a woman taken into custody for wearing red dress, color that is considered inappropriate in the Islamic Dress Code. This is a great opportunity to discuss power issues, gender, cultural differences.

7. Artifacts 

From old to weird objects, artifacts are a sure way to trigger curiosity.

Use questions (“What am I? What am I used for? Who might need me?…) or sentence stems around them (“My question about this object is…/ I think this is…/The most unusual thing about this…”).

Also, you can use everyday objects to stir curiosity. From a paper clip to a shoe you can use any object that might help you get kids’ synapses work faster.

8. Dress-up

I am not sure how many would go for this one but it is a great way to get students react (especially the little ones, like my 2nd graders).

Are you teaching about water life? Get a scuba dive outfit. Just imagine the children’s faces and…questions! when you enter the classroom.

Teaching adjectives? Dress up! Get a wig, hat, colorful boots…anything that would invite to thinking about adjectives. I did so and soon the students covered me with post-its – I was a human adjective from the top of my head to my shoes!

9. Change setting

That means either change the classroom setting itself or go somewhere else to teach.

Our next inquiry unit is on plants as life-sustaining elements. I am turning the classroom into a rain forest, I brought a microscope, a root-viewing window box and more to get the kids wonder. See my work in progress 🙂


If you decide for a complete change, your provocative lesson can start in a museum, a botanical garden, a shop – depending on your focus.

10. Music

Music is an incredibly powerful resource and, in my opinion, rarely used. If you combine it with good questioning strategies it can drive an entire learning experience.

I used it, for instance, to inquire into self-expression and played different songs without saying a word. I just showed the students post-its with the outline of a heart and they wrote how they felt each time the music changed. That led later on to questions like, “Why do you think you felt that way?” , “Why does another classmate feel differently about it?” etc.

*My all time favorite music for provocations can be found here . Kevin MacLeod offers great resources you can download for free.

11. Maps and  statistics

Use maps and statistics that can tell something very powerful about your topic.

From most polluted cities to where famous inventors or writers were born, maps and statistics can provide a different insight into the topic. Online resources abound and they can be interactive and interesting, but I also like to use huge maps that can be placed on the floor so the children can gather around them, and add their questions or “Aha!” moments using post-its.

12. Role-play

I haven’t tried this one yet, but I will.

An example I know is two teachers fighting in front of the children. They would get “angry”, shout at each other – you know, the entire argument on display. The children were surprised, if not shocked. It was a provocation for learning about being “caring” and showing “respect”, two elements of the Student Profile that the PYP schools promote.


Some of you may say that they teach Math and what I wrote can hardly inspire them. Not true. As I tweeted a few days ago, any of the above strategy can be used in any subject (my example was the Fibonacci video as a provocation for understanding patterns and their connection to real-life).

As mentioned before, certain “tricks” enhance the power of a provocation. Whether it is the timing, size (of font, of object), sound, place, surprising end (of a video) – anything helps.

P.S. OK, and I am not happy with WordPress because it does not allow for embedding Scribd documents, MP3s and more like Posterous did.

About CristinaM.

25 years of teaching.
This entry was posted in Inquiry and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Thinking: Shaken Not Stirred

  1. Hailey Joubert says:

    Hi Cristina,
    Thanks for an inspirational post. I will definitely try to make my provocations extra provoking. Effective provocations can support me in my efforts to talk less and listen more.



  2. Kirsten says:

    Maps like the ones described here are very provocative, especially to the adults in the building.
    You give some great ideas!


  3. kviloria says:

    Hi, there!

    I love provoking my students to tune them in to our units. Thanks for sharing these engagements. I like using photos, artifacts, and videos to tune my students in, but now I’m interested to try statements, music, ‘change setting’, statistics and maps. Really helpful for our teaching and learning!



  4. CristinaM. says:

    Hi Katrina,
    I am happy you found the blog post helpful – that was the very purpose of sharing these ideas! 🙂


  5. tasha cowdy says:

    Great post! You have inspired me to think more creatively about provocations and to reflect on the purpose and power of a good provocation. Thanks for sharing. Lots of good ideas. I will pass on to colleagues.


  6. kathmurdoch says:

    Really great post Cristina! Will recommend to others. Keep up the great work



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  8. Derek Pinchbeck says:

    An excellent post. It clarifies the importance of using a range of approaches to emotionally engage all students with the learning.
    One Role Play I’ve used in the past which was very effective for a unit about the changes brought about by exploration was to have one class role play as European Explorers and he other as a groups they visited.
    Neither group had a common language and were given a set of cultural taboos and attitudes before meeting up. 3 encounters took place with a discussion in between each. Students were then paired with someone from the other group to reflect upon what happened. Very powerful for them realising that others have different perspectives.
    Thanks again for a great post


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  12. Jennifer Schaefer says:

    I have revisited this specific blog post many times and shared it with my colleagues as well. As an inquiry teacher, I find I get stuck sometimes and need reminders to carefully choose a powerful provocation to get students thinking and wondering. Sometimes it is all that is required to get things moving. Over and over again, I come back to this list to remind myself that there are multiple ways to engage students. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Ruba Mousa says:

    Just looking through your pictures and came across the picture of the muslim ladies, the one where the lady in black is pulling the lady in red. Can you please fix you information as its misguiding and misleading. Wearing red is not against Islamic dress code it is something cultural. This is very biased against Islam. Which goes against everything you are trying to teach regarding open-mindedness. It would be best to refrain from using provocations that lead to false information.
    Please remove the picture or change the caption.


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