“Lessons for Teaching in the Environment and Community” is a regular series that explores how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula.

Part 20: Beginning at the Beginning


inquiryby Jim Martin, CLEARING guest writer

I-bluen the last blog, we looked at planning an inquiry unit from the perspective of a student display, isolating the parts of the display and tracing them backwards. Now, let’s start at the beginning, and look at the inquiry unit as a scope and sequence. Until you’re comfortable taking your students out into the real world, it’s easy to forget some of the details in this kind of work until you’re on site, or waiting by the school for a bus you haven’t ordered. It happens!

It’s difficult, in the blog’s format, to construct a scope and sequence using a long timeline, so we’ll do it as a narrative. You might practice laying the parts out on a timeline, at least mentally, as the visual feedback often suggests things to do that you won’t notice as you read a narrative.

Our reed distribution inquiry began with the Casual Observation. At least, as written. However, just getting to the site means you’ve ordered a bus and substitute, have talked with your students about safety, given specific directions about clothing and lunches, sent permission slips home for parents to sign and return, looked for equipment students might need, prepared student logs so they can record their experiences, done a preliminary site visit yourself, and prepared the substitute’s lessons.

On a time line, these would line up on the left under a heading, “Casual Observation.” They would be on the left side of this column. On the right of that column, you would list the things students will do. For instance, they will need to know something about the site they will visit, and, in general, what they will be doing there. You’ll need to organize reference materials the class will need when they return, and decide which references you will carry to the site. All before you board the bus. So your timeline would begin at least a month before you’re on that bus, headed toward your site.

The actual observation won’t take up much space on the timeline. You ought to give your students a tour of the site. Then have them follow prompts you give them, or just follow their own noses. At first, this will depend on your comfort level. Eventually, it will depend on your recognition of the potential embedded in a student’s ownership of the work and learnings.

Where we go from here depends upon your schedule. If you’re here for the day, then your students can move through all the pieces of the unit. If you are planning for two briefer field trips, then the timeline will look different, but most of the components should be the same. Because this is a linear unit, with each piece completed before moving to the next, the parts of the scope and sequence will be similar, but the days won’t.

When students have completed their casual observation, you might have them share what they noticed. As students work, some may go to the references for information, others may not have thought of this, or are waiting. As you move around the site, some may ask for advice. Be careful not to tell them what they can find out themselves. A sentence that almost always works for me is, “Good question; how can you find out?” The number and kinds of questions students raise are mostly a function of their locus of control. Okay, let’s move to the Develop an Inquiry Question phase.

Before starting this phase, you should have samples of good and not so good inquiry questions for students to critique. Do you have them do this before, or after they have written two or three tentative questions? Again, this depends on your comfort level and teaching style. Because Assimilation is one of the main conceptual structures that underlie the organization and delivery of my curriculum, I like to have students write first, so they have concrete referents to use when we discuss the characteristics of good inquiry questions.

The process is simple, but takes time. Basically, students write and critique inquiry questions using the examples you provide until they have one or two they are comfortable with. Then, they assess these questions and develop a final inquiry question. You might introduce the concept of operational definitions if appropriate, and naming protocols, which are sort of operational definitions. (Use naming protocols for plants or animals whose names they are unsure of. Mine was, “Give it a name and use it until you have good reason to change it.” This seemed to work; relieves anxiety and reduces confusion.)

If you’re doing two field trips, you’ll want to check permission slips, equipment, bus, and sub. So, under Develop an Inquiry Question, you would just have something like Develop an Inquiry Question on the right, and Prepare Sample Questions and Assessment Criteria on the left, and if you’re doing two trips, check permission slips, etc., on the left. (You might have noticed that all of the items we’ve been adding fall into two groups, logistics and pedagogy. This could be a way to further clarify your scope and sequence.)

After students have developed their inquiry question, they need to Design an Investigation. This is always pretty straightforward; their question tells them what to do to answer it. The other items in this column might be safety reminders, prep the analytical math they’ll need to process their collected data, practice using tables to organize observations, and practice on any equipment they plan to take into the field. They are important, not so much to the design of their investigation as to the next item, Collect Data. However, this is the time, before they leave the school, to do this. Of course, you can move it to Collect Data. I like the idea of prepping these things as students are designing their investigations because they have an opportunity to integrate these concepts into their planning at a time when it makes sense to them.

The Collect Data column is short, unless you include the logistical pieces in it, like take the bus, arrive at site, go to stations, collect data, pull the work together, return to bus. Students ought to iterate safety rules before you release them into the site. After that, students do the work and return to school. By this time, they ought to be the well-oiled machine.

Back at school, they Analyze and Interpret their data. Now that they have concrete referents about data, this is a good time to review what they learned about tables and analytical math. Since student groups will move through this phase at different paces, show them what you want to include (but not be limited to) in their reports and displays, if they are making them. As questions arise, this is where you do targeted mini-lectures. Most classes will welcome a demonstration of the analysis of a hypothetical set of data, both the mathematical and graphical analyses and interpretations. If you’re weak in this area, and lots of us are, this can be a good learning experience for you.

After students have analyzed and interpreted their data, they prepare to Communicate it, the last heading in the scope and sequence. They should at least make a presentation to the class, complete with a poster. You’ve already briefed them on what to include in their display, and this is a good time to reiterate it. After all reporting is done, you ought to consider having the class summarize the meaning of all of the findings. You’ll find, over the years, that you’ll learn as much about teaching as they learn about environments.

This description of attempting to use a scope and sequence has generated a great deal of detail. More detail than you’d want on a simple timeline. You can take lumps of these details, give each lump a name that makes sense to you, and just name the lump. It will help build a better scope and sequence. Somewhere below these briefer descriptors you can jot down the details. (I’ve used spreadsheets to do this, since you can go as far to the right, and down, as you want.)

It may be time, while we’re engaging underlying structures, to examine their significance. Next time, we’ll do this, and discuss some of the reasons structure is significant.

jimphotocroppedThis is the twentieth installment of “Teaching in the Environment,” a new, regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests,  and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”