Posts Tagged ‘systems’

Teacher, Don’t Tell Me!

In Uncategorized on July 22, 2011 at 12:15 am

I promised in an older post (Why I Don’t Like Only FUN” ) that I would demonstrate why constructivism – and inquiry- work, and the simplest and most likely convincing way is to show my classroom experience.

If you don’t like long posts, you may very well give up. I intend to give a full picture of the inquiry unit as it developed in its 4 weeks and include photos, documents and, sure, explanations…

*NOTE: My students are second–language learners in second grade.


So here it goes.

Every inquiry unit develops around a Central Idea (which may or may not be revealed by the teacher at the beginning). This unit’s idea was “A city has complex systems that influence people’s lives and its development.”


I chose NOT to tell it to my students so they would struggle a little…


1. Nice, but how do you teach an abstract concept such as “system” to 2nd graders?  

Simple: I divided the class in three groups and gave each group something different: a toy car, a pen and a puzzle. The trick that the kids didn’t know…was that each was missing a piece! They tried to assemble the pen (hey, but the spring was missing!), the toy car (oh no, a wheel is not there!) and the tree-puzzle (again, part of it was missing). The kids thought, argued, rearranged…”Cri, we can’t finish it!!”

So we sat down and discussed . Their conclusions:

a system is made of interconnected parts (yes, Ioana said that magic word!)

if a part is missing the entire system will not work (Elenis formulated it exactly that way!)

Some will ask, “So what? No big deal. How do you know they UNDERSTOOD the concept at a deeper level?” Well, I asked students to prove they understood it. How? By asking them to actually give an example, illustrate a system that is familiar to them and then share with us.

What systems did they draw and illustrate? Lots! From the anatomy of a bunny (heart, bones, lungs etc) to complex machines, buildings, laptops, musical instruments, plants. All included parts of the system and each student explained HOW it worked and how they were connected.


Question: did I “cover” or engaged students “dis-cover” the concept?

*I gave another example of how I teach abstract concepts here

Step 2. Back to the “city”…

BRAINSTORMING: “What words come to your mind when you think of CITY?”

Purpose? Connect with prior knowledge (so I would have a foundation to build on later).

The photo is illustrative enough: tens of words began to pour.


But that was the easy part. Next step: CLASSIFY them. “Can we put them in certain classes/groups? Can you find criteria to divide them?” (certainly, this is a higher thinking skill…) They grouped them using the Affinity Diagram technique:


I also challenged students to create a diagram that would best illustrate the concept of “system” (visualizing abstract concepts is critical): they struggled because the diagram would not represent connections (e.g. the pyramid, or the tree –diagram etc). That was when Eliza came up with a simple yet powerful way to illustrate it (see how each part is linked to others and also to the whole): 

Step 3. Hm, let’s throw them into the central idea “figure-out” phase.

They already knew the unit had some connections with “city” and “systems” so they thought…and thought… and came up with these ideas (remember they are in 2nd grade 🙂 

Cities help many people survive.

Cties are part of our habitat.

Cities are one of the greatest things that help people.

Almost all objects are from cities.

All people need cities.

People need cities because they can buy things for them to survive.

There are many places to visit in cities.

I have to know where I live and other places.

I need a lot of things from the city.

We listened to each student, marked the “key words” and then I showed them the Central Idea. To let them play with language (because, you know, they are second-language learners) I cut all the words and asked them to put them together. Of course they figured out everything. We then discussed the “complicated/fancy heavy” words in it (“complex”, “influence”, “develop”).


Step 4. Good so far. Kids understood and applied the major concept…but let’s connect with others.

Find out what THEY think and know about cities. So off you go, kiddos! Go around the school with this questionnaire:



Upon return we made the T-chart (so we can get ALL the answers) and then used Create-a-Graph to illustrate the data (it is one of the simplest apps).

Step 5. Switch.

“What do we NEED?” (And you go, “Hm… How is this connected to your unit???”. Just wait…)

NEED: Kids brainstormed and concluded: food, water, shelter, to be safe, to be educated, to be healthy…

Next, “What do you WANT?” Well, as you can presume, they could hardly stop: toys, to travel, candies, a roller –coaster….

Now take a step back, I said…Let’s visualize this…and see how these connect to “city”. Bingo! ALL the systems in the city developed because of our needs and wants! AHA! So it all makes sense now…

Food———??? shops, supermarkets

Water —-??? water systems, sewage systems

Shelter——??? houses, buildings, blocks of flats

Health—??? hospitals, medicine, utilities

Safety-??? police, fire departments….

Education–??? schools, universities, museums, libraries… (and so on)

Ain’t that nice? For STUDENTS to get big ideas with just a push? *below is the final concept map 


Step 6. Global perspectives.

Wait, shouldn’t we hear from OTHER people about their city? Just so we can compare with our city (Bucharest) and see how the systems work there?

Thanks to a wonderful bunch of people on Twitter, in two hours after having posted the Google Document on Twitter, my class received over 10 responses! We had answers from Portland   (@ccassinelli), Tokyo ( @tokyoedtech) , Czech Replublic (@sandymillin), Bangkok ( @simreilly) and more!


*As a side note, what were the odds that a former student of MINE (whose teacher I was a decade ago!) to see the document and contribute to help my current generation of students? She currently lives in Turkey and wrote about Istanbul city systems. 😀 The power of connections!


Step 7. Okay, we have a foundation now to build our own questions.

(We cannot simply ask students to be inquirers without giving them some provocations AND build a little knowledge about the topic).

The kids wrote their questions which I printed the next day so they would classify them into “skinny”(closed questions – such as “What is the biggest city in the world?”) and “fat” questions (questions that drive the inquiry further and need more research). *see some samples below.

Each inquiry develops around these personal questions and kids research with little support from me. At the same time, we continue with whole class activities so kids can get a better picture of the concepts involved. 


Step 8. Let’s go even deeper…CAUSE-EFFECT relationships between systems.

Now this was rated as an “interesting yet challenging activity” by my students (I always ask them to give me feedback on how the unit develops). Of course it was…because making things too easy demotivates in the long run. And because mind-stretching is a good thing for our grey matter.

Since I like to alternate tech with paper-based activities, I simply gave students a flip-notebook (blank sheets of paper cut in the middle: Cause on one side, Effect on the other).

We sat in a circle on the floor and thought. Hard. We took each system and wondered…(e.g.”If the transportation system did not work…what would happen to the city? To the people who need to work? To the children who need to go to school? To the police and fire deparment?…etc)


Step 9. Guest speakers : why not inviting them for a “real” interaction?

Nothing beats a face-to-face discussion! So we invited Andrei Avram (from a Romanian Institute) and …??? one of my PLN friends , Vijay Krishnan aka @bucharesttutor!      

Each replied to our questions (and we had LOTS brainstormed prior to these meetings!) and engaged us in great conversations. In English, of course (lucky us – because we could practice listening, speaking and reading skills!) Below is the Google Document turned into a PDF (kids wrote the questions prior to Vijay’s visit; his answers – in bold or red – were written by me as he kept talking to the kids). 



Step 9. What about a visit? Hooray!

Yes, I plan visits at each inquiry unit: kids need to see REAL things, interact with REAL people, get LIFE as it is. But this time it was different because I did not get involved. Yes, I didn’t. PARENTS, whom I asked for help in an e-mail, offered to take groups of kids to their workplace! They came on the same day and took them to different places (bank, technology company and shop) and brought them back at lunch time. Needless to say that the kids had a wonderful time and learnt. A lot. Because they were armed with a reflection paper:



Because I don’t want to make this post longer than it already is…I would just mention that kids also created cities online , wrote in the class blog about a city in the world they chose …., answered quizzes that I created on the class blog etc. (see our links for the unit here ).


   The conclusion is that you CAN develop critical thinking skills and creativity without “teaching” ONLY the old way. You can. Without a textbook. Without talking much (just notice how little I actually interfered with collective knowledge in this classroom). 

And that constructivism is not a synonym with laissez-faire or “poor random learning”.