Build On Their Strengths With Inductive Learning

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Sherlock Photo from

Have you ever seen Sherlock Holmes make amazing inferences from tiny details? Here’s an example from Young Sherlock Holmes:

Although Holmes calls his process deductive thinking, it’s actually the opposite: inductive thinking. And guess what? Many of your gifted students are blessed with this same skill.

Inductive Thinking

A quick definition:

Inductive Thinking: identifying patterns within small details to form big ideas.

Examples from the clip

Detail Pattern Big Idea
Watson’s shoes These shoes are only available in the North Watson is from the North
Watson’s book This book is for doctors, but Watson is too young to be a doctor Watson’s father is a doctor
Watson’s callus Writers develop a callus from using a pen Watson is a writer

Holmes uses his ability to formulate patterns from details to solve crimes, but your students might use the same ability to derail a dull lesson!

Inductive Thinking And Gifted Kids

Ugur Suk states that:

Research reveals that most gifted adolescents are intuitive, as opposed to the general population From A Synthesis of Research on Psychological Types of Gifted Adolescents

This means that gifted students, in contrast to the rest of us, really do just get it and don’t need as much repetition or explanation.

Lannie Kanevsky asked both gifted and non-gifted students what they liked about school. The most polarizing topic, by far, was “I really like learning small bits of information at a slow, easy pace with lots of practice.” Gifted students were remarkably more negative. She states:

These results highlighted two commonly reported attributes that distinguish high-­ability learners from their peers: their facil­ity with abstract understandings and their rapid learning From Deferential Differentiation by Lannie Kanevsky

Gifted students spot patterns quicker than the rest of us. They learn faster. They naturally move from concrete to abstract, just as Holmes inferred Watson’s hometown from his shoes.

Transforming A Typical Lesson

Imagine a typical direct instruction lesson:

  1. Explain the lesson’s big idea
  2. Demonstrate examples.
  3. Practice examples with students.
  4. Students practice examples in groups.
  5. Students practice examples independently.

Notice that this is built on the very idea gifted students disliked most: lots of slow practice with small pieces of information.

Let’s use inductive lessons to work with gifted students’ natural tendency to abstract.

Switch To Inductive Thinking

Hilda Taba developed a model for teaching students using an inductive approach:

  1. Provide students with unorganized details.
  2. Ask students to look for patterns and form categories.
  3. Use the patterns to develop a big idea.

We used a variant of this type of lesson when helping students develop strong scientific opinions.

Notice that students immediately manipulate details into abstract categories and then into an even more abstract generalization. This experience is also open-ended, since students may arrive at different (but still correct) big ideas in the end.

Case Study: The Nile River

When teaching about the Nile River, we might organize our lesson around the advantages and disadvantages of the river.

Using an inductive method, we’re going to put the development of such a generalization into our students’ hands (scary right!?).

1. Give Students Unorganized Details

We begin this inductive lesson by researching details about The Nile. Students have to be armed with facts before they can build big ideas. If this is a subject they’re already familiar with, hold a brainstorming session.

Some possibilities:

The Nile River
Provided fresh water Source of papyrus Flooded every year
Floods wiped out settlements Flood plains were rich with soil Egyptians could travel quickly on boats
The Nile was a major trade route Enabled Egyptians to reach the Mediterranean Sea Nile provided food through fishing

2. Students Categorize Details

Now, students determine patterns within these details, forming categories, such as:

  • Positives and Negatives
  • Travel, Food, and Danger

3. Students Develop a Big Idea

Using those group names, students develop a generalization encompassing their understanding of the Nile.

  • The Nile was a paradox, having both advantages and disadvantages“.
  • The benefits of travel and food outweighed The Nile’s many dangers.

Warning Kids will want to just list the categories: “The Nile was useful for travel and food, but also had danger.” Challenge them to move beyond this, offering some judgement or analysis in their statement. This may be the most challenging part of the lesson for them.

Bonus: Continue With More Examples

We could extend this lesson by introducing new facts about the Nile to test students’ generalizations. Does the big idea truly hold up?

Coming Up

Inductive thinking is natural for gifted students. Building lessons around this trait makes teaching easier for you and more enjoyable for them.

Next time, we’ll continue our look at inductive learning by examining inductive lessons in math.