Thursday, November 23, 2017

Provoking Student Thinking

Provocations are new to me. As a secondary teacher, I have never used provocations in my teaching. In my new role as District Science Helping Teacher, I work with elementary teachers all the time so I have been exposed to provocations more often. And in my typical professional manner, I am stealing this idea to use it in my classroom.

I recently had an opportunity to share a workshop with my Helping Teacher colleagues. I led them through a lesson on friction using friction blocks and spring scales. I wanted to start the lesson with open play so I created some provocations.

I attempted to craft the provocations to draw out specific learning. In particular, the question: "How slowly can you move the block?" is intended to allow students to observe something specific. Using a spring scale to pull the block, students should notice that the force required to start the block moving is larger than the force required to keep it moving. Pulling slowly makes this very obvious. The spring scale reading will go up, up, up until the block starts to move. Then the reading will drop suddenly as it begins to move. In my physics classes, about half the students notice this on their own during the lab. The provocation is intended to ensure that all students observe this happening.

Of course, I underestimated the creativity of my colleagues. One person picked up the block and moved it very slowly through the air. The block wasn't sliding so no friction. No spring scale was used. There was zero chance to observe what I had intended.

And that is my fault. I thought I had crafted the provocation in a way to get at the noticing I wanted to happen. But my wording allowed for alternate methods that didn't allow for the noticing I wanted. I realized I need to change some words.

What do I really want to happen?

  • I want students to pull the block so it slides across the table because there needs to be friction.
  • I want students to pull the block using a spring scale to see the reading change.
  • I want students to pull the block slowly so the change is obvious.

So my provocation needs to be more specific to make sure these things happen. Here is my new provocation:

What is the smallest force you can use to slide the block?

  • The word slide ensures there will be friction.
  • The word force ensures they will use the spring scale to measure the force.
  • The word smallest ensures they will pull slowly so they can observe the change.

Intentionally crafting the provocation provokes the learning I want my students to experience.


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