Friday, December 9, 2011

Question Quilts and Mystery Items

Last Friday I blogged about finding objects in nature to observe with your children or students. A question quilt offers a new way for kids to engage with the objects. (Note: I learned this strategy years ago at a teacher workshop. I thought science teacher Allan Harris had taught me but he has since told me it wasn't him. I cannot remember the teacher who created it. If it was you, please tell me so I can credit you!)

Materials needed:
Large piece of poster sized paper
colorful assortment of square sticky notes (3" x3")
nature object


  1. Display the natural object you or the children collected. 
  2. Ask students to write their questions on sticky notes and arrange them on the poster paper in a pattern (Like a quilt. Get it? A "Question Quilt!" This part is really just for fun- creating a quilt pattern helps keep some kids engaged in the process). Only one question per paper. In my classroom, I asked my students to initial their questions so I could monitor their engagement and understanding. The quality of questions will deepen over time. The depth and detail of questions helps you understand what they understand. ("What is it?" is not a deep science kind of question). 
  3. If any students think they know the answers to classmate's questions, they can answer them under the appropriate sticky note. The challenge is for kids to answer their classmates without giving away so much information that the investigating stops. (For example, I often display a mystery item- that is, an item they can't readily identify. Students are not allowed to write the name of the item even if they know it. Rather, the challenge is to make suggestions that help their classmates come to the answer, too). 
  4. Once the item has been out for a while (a couple of days or so) I place some appropriate resources nearby and encourage them to start looking for information. Usually, by this time, they can't wait to learn more about it. Those books fly off the table as kids race to identify the objects and learn more about them. Some tell me they're going to sneak and ask their parents for information or "Google it" at home. My response...Go for it! That's not cheating. Scientists share information with each other. See what you can learn." (I do tell them no book/internet research for at least a couple of days. I want them to engage with the object first, before they see what others have to say about it.
  5. Since I usually placed an item out on a Monday, by Friday we'd debrief their learning and identify the object. I often tied the objects to what we were learning in class (e.g. A trilobite fossil during a rocks and minerals unit) but other times they were random items that just turned up. If they kids were interested in them, we might dig deeper, but often we'd do a week of questioning and investigating and move on.
So, in the case of the wasp nest I shared last week, I would put it on the table on Monday and let them start asking questions. Some students might call it a bee nest, a wasp nest, or a hornet nest the first day. I'd let them keep asking questions and begin investigating. Perhaps on Wednesday, I'd place books about bees, wasps, and hornets on the science table. That's it. Just place them there and the kids would dig in. By Friday, we would have identified the insect that built the nest and learned some facts.To wrap up, we'd review the questions on the quilt to be sure all of them were answered.

One final note: I use this exact strategy in the graduate science course I teach. The adults get into it just as much as the kids.

Do you have any unique strategies you use to investigate natural objects? Will you try this one? Please share.

Related posts:
Paper Wasp Nest
Top 10 Ways to Promote Science Inquiry
Nature Observations With Young Children

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