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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ways of Learning: it's all about the Questions!

Whenever a class goes out into the forest for an ECO day, our goal is to learn about the natural world around us.  There are different focuses, of course, and during this session with an East Montpelier 2nd/3rd grade class, the focus was to learn about decomposers.  The classroom teacher and the ECO teacher share teaching responsibilities and and here is the classroom teacher reading A Log's Life.  

This book demonstrated how different animals, insects, fungus, and weather all work together to decay logs in the forest.  

Mrs. Fitch's class at rapt attention.

Singing can be a powerful teaching tool for all ages, so we used a roiling, fun song about decomposers to extend the learning from the book.  Check out the lyrics and a recording for "Decomposers" here.  All of this: the reading, the conversation, the song, was to get us primed for looking for decay happening in our small square of woods.  The class divided into partners and each small group scoped out their own tree for signs of decomposition in action.  

A student investigating an interesting fungus at her log.
Part of the objective of the decay investigations was for students to observe logs, and the other part was to ask questions.  Check out the spontaneous questioning that this student, pictured above, remarked:  "I wonder what this is.  Wow, it's sticky!  Can we bring it to the group so they can see it?"

Then, as she pulled some bark off and noticed something that looked like dirt she said, "Hey, is this the dirt that decomposers make?" Good questions!

A pair of students recording observations at their log. 
When checking out their specimen, these two students found that one of the branches was springy.  "Hey, this is like a trampoline!"  This playful exploration showed them that the log must be older, as newer logs would have more brittle branches that would snap under pressure.

Sticks can be tools to help feel the "squishyness" of the log.
 When the teacher asked this student and her partner what they were doing, one replied, "We're just banging around looking for insects.  Basically, we're helping the tree decay."  Nice observation!

One team's scientific drawing of their log specimen.  

The hands-on investigation of the log was a vital part of the learning.  When kids literally get their hands dirty and use their senses to learn about the world around them, studies show that they are more likely to retain the information they learned.  So when children felt the give of a tree with their thumbnail or the sliminess of a fungus, that will prompt memories and hopefully questions of what else to learn. Check out this list of questions that the class generated after their time investigating the logs:

I wonder how fungi grows?
How does a free fall naturally?
How do mushrooms feel?
What is this bug?
What are these eggs?
What is this white stuff?
Where does wood come from?
How did trees first grow if there was nothing to make them?
How long have these logs on the ground?
How do these kings get these stuff in them?
What happens to all these leaves on the ground?
How do leaves get holes in them?
Why do down trees not have leaves in the winter and some do?
How did animals first exist?

This is an impressive list of questions and really shows the curiosity and wonder of these students.  We could have gone on for a long time with the questions, but we had to stop due to time constraints.  It is these questions that drive learning and when children get to follow their own curiosities, that is where real learning happens.

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