My definition of “inquiry” as an educational method: it’s the students’ job to inquire into the material, and while they do that, it’s my job to inquire into their thinking.

So yes, the goal is really “inquiry-based learning”.  I’ve written lots before about what the students do.  But this post is about what I do. I have to inquire at least as much as the students do.

I’ve written that before, more than once… but do you think I can find it on my own blog?  Nope.  Also, I stole it originally, probably from Brian Frank.  Do you think I can find it on his blog?  *sigh*  If anyone finds it, in either place, let me know, would ya?

What’s new about my ability to inquire into my students’ thinking is that I’m treating it more like a qualitative research project.  Someday I’ll go take a qualitative methods course and actually know what I’m talking about (I’m taking suggestions for methods texts, courses you liked, or profs you respect)… but until then, I’m muddling through better than usual.

Activities That Help Me Inquire Into Student Thinking

Playdough Circuit

Published by Science Buddies

We spend the first week doing things that are designed for them to play with their current ideas and me to learn to find out about them.  In the past I set out piles of AA batteries, light bulbs, sockets,  and switches.  I’d ask students to build a circuit that worked, one that looked like it should but didn’t, and a third one of any description.  Students drew their circuit on paper and wrote down what they noticed, as well as what they wondered (props to Brian again for the wording of the prompt, which helps break down the fear induced by writing the “wrong” thing in a lab report “observation” section).  The noticing and wondering helps me learn a lot about their ideas.

This year I added a day before light bulbs where they made circuits out of playdough.  It was silly, messy, and fun.  It also yielded lots of new info about their thinking about electrons, voltage, current, charge, etc., which I asked them to record on this handout.



Whatever they write down ends up in a spreadsheet that looks like this:

2015 Intake ideas so far Name Date Context V R I P C Energy Potential
voltage is potential difference amount of potential energy between points XXXXXX 09-Sep-15 Squishy Circuits x x x
Insulators stop energy from passing through XXXXXX 09-Sep-15 Squishy Circuits x
Conductors allow the transfer of energy XXXXXX 09-Sep-15 Squishy Circuits x


I just keep adding tags on the right to keep track of whatever topic I need to keep track of.  That way I can sort by topic, by date, or by student.  It also helps me see which activities yielded what kind of curiosity.

My Favourite Ideas So Far

What holds matter together?

Are electrons what power actually is?

Batteries in a row must connect to each other like how magnets connect together to attract each other (2 negatives connected doesn’t work)

Closing the switch should double the power supply, but there was no noticeable difference. Why?

When negative side of battery reaches positive side of other battery, shouldn’t it be a complete circuit?

Put the switch on the other side of the bulb.  Does it matter?

Why did the 2 dim lights light at all, when the path of least resistance was through the 1 light bulb path?  In my “double the wires” circuit, they didn’t light at all.

Why don’t any of the bulbs turn on?  I would have thought that at least the first bulb would faintly glow.

Resistance is how much current is lost in the current

What separates Watts from Volts?

If I Inqire Into My Own Thinking…

What’s the pattern here about which ideas are exciting to me?  Well, quite a few of them are challenges to common misconceptions.  Despite my resistance, it seems I’ve still got a bit of a case of misconception listening.

The other pattern is that they all point either to questioning cause, or improving precision.  Those are discipline-specific skills, part of the “implicit curriculum” that people in my field often think of as unlearnable “aptitudes” instead of skills.  So there’s a practise of inclusion underlying my choices — making these skills explicit benefits everyone but especially the people with little previous exposure to technical fields.  Cause and precision are also things that I personally find satisfying and beautiful.  No coincidence about the overlap — I chose my field for a reason.  I’ll have to be careful to encourage curiosity wherever I find it, not just in the students who ask the kinds of questions I like best.