Reflections on the Fall Semester

The Water Inquiry Team held two roundtable sessions this year, bringing together participating teachers from four schools to discuss classroom initiatives and reflect on idea-centered learning. We enjoyed these chances to hear about the real challenges of sustaining inquiry in the classroom and, of course, to examine student work. In the coming year, we hope to move these avenues of inquiry forward as a group and develop new resources for teachers interested in furthering idea-centered learning and improving children’s understanding of water.  

Learning from water inquiry roundtable discussions


Jan Szymaszek contributes to the group chart at the November 9 roundtable.

On September 29, Jan Szymaszek, third grade teacher from Smith College Campus School, presented student work from her class’s first group discussions of fog. The work brought up a number of questions. Most importantly, perhaps, the group discussed the relationship between students’ noticing and wondering vs scientific fact. Where does the teacher’s responsibility lie when students wander down an unforeseen path (for example, if students postulate that fog is not water at all!)? How do we document the rich discussions that may happen spontaneously on the playground, or during lunch? Or how can a teacher bring different forms of water (fog, in this case) to the students? Some teachers wondered about launching their own water inquiries, allowing other teachers to offer advice and resources.

Sealed bags and open cups of water are prominently displayed in Katy Butler's classroom.

Sealed bags and open cups of water are prominently displayed in Katy Butler’s classroom.

We reconvened as a group on November 9. Katy Butler, first grade teacher from Jackson Street School, presented students’ predictions and observations comparing water in a cup and in a sealed plastic bag: “Where will it go?” and “Where did it go?”  Following the discussion of the children’s work, everyone participated in a knowledge building activity, using a visual representation to display individual theories and how they connected with one another. This exercise brought up many more questions that we look forward to exploring in the future: What comes after the collection of students’ ideas? When is it time to bring an outside source into the discussion? Does the introduction of an expert source close the conversation, or can it open a new avenue of inquiry?


Reflections from students on the water team

With these questions and observations in mind, students from the water team reflect on their experiences participating in the roundtables below.

Ruth: In both roundtable sessions I found it very interesting to learn more about how students in each class develop their ideas about water through drawings, experiments, and class discussions. In both Jan Szymaszek’s classroom and Katy Butler’s classroom the students’ ideas about water shifted: from observations of turquoise pipes and imaginative theories involving large splashes, to ideas encompassing evaporation and the water cycle.  I am very interested to see how student theories continue to develop and how this development occurs. The Water Inquiry Team hopes to help guide continuing idea development about water, for teachers and students.

Elena Betke-Brunswick examines one of the student-made "windproof machines."

Elena Betke-Brunswick, Water Inquiry Participant, examines one of the student-made “windproof machines.”

Catherine: What most interests me is the question of when to allow students to continue to search for answers on their own and when to bring in the expert. The work that Katy Butler presented at the most recent roundtable was a perfect example of how the teacher may guide discourse without calling on an authoritative source. Initially, her students believed that water evaporation was caused by splashing, so she encouraged them to fill plastic cups with water and then observe how the water level changed. As the water level dropped without splashes, children then concluded that wind must be blowing the water out of the cups. Currently, students are building “windproof machines” to see if that theory holds. But the question, echoed by many teachers during our visual exercise, still remains: Where to go next? At what point does the teacher have to hand the reins over to an outside source? How do you do that? Or do you have to? I look forward to grappling with these questions in the near future.


Third grade students at the Smith College Campus School have created collage artworks in response to their water studies.

Hannah: I found myself really excited to learn more about what is going on in classrooms right now. In both Jan and Katy’s classrooms, students are in the process of refining their theories.  A combination of group discussion and experimentation drives the transition from an individual theory to a community theory. I look forward to seeing these theories develop as the year continues. Questions that I am interested in exploring also include: What is the role of the teacher in guiding discourse or theory formation? How can we support the shift from individual to community theories? I am looking forward to investigating these questions in the coming months.

What’s next?
As the year comes to a close, we leave for the holiday break with exciting data from teachers to analyze and many questions to consider and pursue going forward. Currently, the Water Inquiry team is contacting participating teachers to further learn about what is happening inside their classrooms and what sort of tools and techniques we can provide to help support their students’ inquiry. In March and April, we will hold two more roundtable sessions, sure to spark discussions as thoughtful and intriguing as those from this semester.

Blog post by Catherine Bradley, Allyson Ciccarone, Ruth Neils and Hannah Searles

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