Reflections on Water Inquiry, July 2015-June 2016


Water Inquiry group observing pond in botanic garden

Water Inquiry group observing pond at Botanic Garden

What can you do with 100 hours?  Ask any of the eleven K-3 teachers who collaborated with Smith students and faculty on the 2015-16 Water Inquiry project, or read on to see what we discovered about inquiry-based learning, water as a topic and outdoor exploration. At our final meeting in May, we asked teachers to reflect on what they learned not only in the hundred hours they invested in group discussion, but also in countless water investigations at Jackson Street, Leeds Elementary and the Campus School. Jan Szymaszek, third grade teacher, summed up what the collaboration offered: “Time and space to come together… to pursue vexing issues of teaching, learning and instructing in a way that supports and sustains rich and rigorous learning in science and overall.”  We want to thank Smith’s Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability for providing us with the time, space and tea to sustain our year-long inquiry.

Maria Garcia, K teacher, Jackson Street

What did we learn?

One way to think about what we learned is to check in on three goals we set at the beginning of the year:

  1. Learn in and from outdoor surroundings, especially school yards.
  2. Explore “water” as a topic that offers promising questions and problems of understanding.
  3. Improve our understanding of how to spark and sustain scientific inquiry.



First graders map storm drains on the Jackson Street school grounds.

First graders map storm drains at Jackson Street

Outdoor investigations were highlights of the water inquiry project, both for teachers and kids.  Going out in a downpour, looking up at clouds, peering down storm drains and watching the river after a storm, were moments that stood out for teachers because their students were deeply engaged in trying to explain phenomena in their world.  Like their students, teachers’ curiosity and sense of wonder were inspired by exploring the Botanic Garden and following water downstream from the MacLeish Field Station.  As third grade teacher Amanda Newton reflected, “Exploring the garden and bouncing half-formed ideas was helpful and inspiring.” Most recently, first graders in Katy Butler’s class have been mapping drains on their school grounds and discovering that there are actually three different kinds of water moving through underground pipes:  clean, dirty and in-between.

Questions and diagrams by first graders, Jackson Street

Questions and diagrams by first graders, Jackson Street

“There is something compelling about water.”
Everyone echoed this teacher’s comment. Building on initial ideas about “why water?” – it’s everywhere, it keeps changing forms, it sustains life, we have to improve how we manage it as a resource – teachers were struck by the vigor and persistence with which their students developed water questions, theories and explanations.  A third grader wrote in her
Nature Notes journal, “I love studying water.”  

Teachers intend to continue working with overarching questions about water that emerge from children’s discussions, experiments, diagrams and outdoor investigations.  We identified key ideas that raise promising problems of understanding, including: movement, cleanliness, human interactions, changing states and ownership.

  • Where does water come from? Where does water go?
  • What does water do? What do we do to water?
  • What do we mean by clean/dirty water? How/why/where does water get clean or dirty?  
  • Who does water belong to?

One teacher reflected that water questions are “still alive” even when the classroom focus shifts to another topic: children bring new questions; revise their theories; and construct new explanations based on something that happens outside of school, like flying through clouds on an airplane (“Why is it bumpy inside the cloud but not outside the cloud?”)

Chart from Natural Curiosity, Dr. Eric Jackman Institute, University of Toronto

Chart from Natural Curiosity, University of Toronto

What are we learning about how to spark and sustain scientific inquiry?
Teachers identified strategies, or “teacher moves,” from the water inquiry project that they found most helpful in supporting and advancing inquiry-based learning:

  • Start with a question to create a problem of understanding and “disturb thinking.
  • Draw (and revise) diagrams to imagine and map water flow (e.g. cloud-to-faucet).
  • Question each other’s work, using post-it notes to develop and classify group ideas.  
  • Be on the lookout for teachable moments.
  • Design experiments to investigate problems of understanding.
  • Be a co—learner (in collaboration/communication with students and colleagues).

The role of teacher as facilitator of idea-building, rather than transmitter of knowledge, was an important discussion throughout the year.  As Kindergarten teacher Mary Ellen Reed reflected, “It is okay to let children/adults develop their own ideas over time through more observations, conversations, exploration.”  Re-framing the role of the teacher raised lingering questions, including when and how to introduce authoritative sources.  Teachers agreed unanimously that they want to continue with this collaborative approach to learning. They conclude that it is “fun and provocative,” gets them “engaged and involved in deep thinking about practice,” and “it’s refreshing to collaborate on how to move ideas forward.”

What were our favorite parts of working on the project this year?

Hannah and Ruth analyzing student diagrams

Ruth Neils is a rising sophomore at Smith College and is double majoring in Education and Environmental Science and Policy:
Throughout this year, what I found to be the most compelling, and also the most challenging, aspect of the project involved working with the water inquiry group to find ways to develop  and foster student thinking. Looking at student work during classroom visits and roundtable discussions provided opportunities to focus on ideas and concepts that children were working to understand. It was challenging  to uncover ways to guide students’ thinking while ensuring that questions and ideas about these topics were not just answered but discovered and understood. While this aspect of the project was difficult, I also found it incredibly valuable because it involved collaboration and problem solving using every member of the water inquiry group, which allowed ideas and half formed thoughts to develop into possible solutions and actions that could become an aid for all of the members of the group when they encountered a similar dilemma.

Hannah Searles is a rising junior at Smith College and is double majoring in Education and Psychology:
What I found most compelling this year was thinking about how to begin and continue inquiry. There are so many intriguing questions and mysteries to be found in the world around us, and the genuine curiosity that it inspires is a perfect starting point. One of the things we talked about at the roundtables was how the teacher can be a co-learner. During the year, I realized how many gaps I had in my own knowledge about water! Using real questions inspired by natural curiosity seems to be a key to sustaining inquiry. One question that I found both compelling and challenging was how to balance natural inquiry and the introduction of authoritative sources. When should they be introduced? Should they? One of the things that I took away from this year is that it’s okay not to know the answers – inquiry can be messy, non-linear, and branch out in many different directions! The process is just as important, if not more, than the end product.

Images from Bob's third grade water study in art

Images from Bob Hepner’s art studio, third grade water study, Campus School

Thank you to all of the teachers and children, and Smith students and faculty, who make this work exciting and productive. We look forward to collaborating next year and hope you and your students will help us rescue ducklings from a storm drain in our upcoming teaching-as-storytelling adventure (in the works this summer).

by Carol Berner, Ruth Neils and Hannah Searles on behalf of the Water Inquiry Group.

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