One of my go-to models of instruction is Group Investigation, developed by John Dewey way back in the beginning of the 20th century. (And no, he’s not the Dewey Decimal System Dewey).
The main feature of Group Investigation is that students will generate and answer their own questions. It’s a model built on curiosity.
I have always found Group Investigation to be a fantastic opening lesson in a unit. We’ll be using my own “Intro to Wind Power” Group Investigation that I ran with my students.
First: Provoke Curiosity
Group Investigation depends on a collection of images, movie clips, objects, etc that will quickly trigger student curiosity about your topic. If you receive my my Curiosities and Puzzlements mailer, you’ll know what we want here. Something to get kids wondering!
So, this is where you’ll spend the bulk of your planning time: gathering interesting imagery.
Pick Images Purposefully
Here are the images I used to get kids wondering about wind power. Now, I didn’t just grab the first pictures I saw. No no. I carefully collected a combination of images to provoke curiosity. Each picture serves a purpose! (And note how helpful numbering the images is!)
- This one’s so different from the other turbines that it always generates questions.
- I purposefully wanted a four-arm turbine, since the others had three arms.
- These have an interesting “tail.”
- I wanted to show that wind power isn’t a new technology.
- Turbines in the ocean? What!
- Hopefully getting kids to think about where to put turbines.
Each image is intended to provoke a certain train of thought. Take the time to set this up well! After all, you can use it for the rest of your career! Heck, I’m still using this slide a decade after leaving the classroom!
So first, gather curiosity-provoking imagery of your topic. I used photos here, but in social studies, I might choose a painting. I once watched a 4th-grade class dive deep into this painting of American Progress.
1.5 Pre-Plan Some Questions
I learned that it’s essential to pre-plan your own questions. Look at the images you’ve gathered and create your own set of a dozen or more curious questions. If you can’t do it, your students will struggle as well.
If you have a spouse, kid, or friend willing to help, show them the images and see what they wonder. Questions should naturally bubble up. If it isn’t working, pick new images!
Next: show the images to students.
2 Show Images and Gathering Questions
At my school, kids were pretty familiar with Group Investigations from earlier classes. If you’re already using the Puzzlements mailer, your kids may be well-prepared as well.
But, if you have never practiced curiosity with your class, they’ll need some scaffolding and guidance.
Class, I’m going to show you a set of images that I put together. I want you to just look at them for a while. Then, if you spot something interesting, I want you to let me know. We’re going to collect your questions about these images. Now, your questions can be BIG or tiny. Open or closed. Weird or boring. I just want to know what you’re wondering as you look at these images.
I like to have students write questions down first. Then it’s easier for them to share out. Regardless, your goal now is to gather as many student questions as possible.
Then, I start writing their questions down.
3 Capture Their Questions
Some teachers write their students’ questions down on chart paper. I liked to type them into a document. I’m a faster typer than hand writer. But this also gave me more options for using the questions later.
However you want to do it, you need to collect a dozen or more student questions.
Some questions my students asked about the image:
- Is it more efficient to have more arms on the turbine?
- Where in the world is it best to put wind power?
- Is a windmill really powering something?
- Does the size of the turbine matter?
You’ll get different questions from every class, even if you use the same set of images. Once you have a dozen questions or so, students will start finding answers!
4 Get In Groups, Give Resources
Now, put your students into small groups. I like groups of three. Some teachers create highly structured groups where everyone has a role. I was a bit looser than that. If you have a kid who just works better alone (you know who I’m talking about), a solo group is fine with me.
I’d give each group a copy of the questions, either by printing it out or sharing a Google Doc.
You will need to provide resources. Your textbook won’t cut it. A shared document with hand-picked links works well. Photocopy some articles. Bring in library books. Whatever works for you!
🛑 Can we just stop for a sec and consider that John Dewey developed this model back in the 1920s! No internet, no computer, no projector, no webpages to link to, heck no photocopier, right? It’s pretty incredible how much easier this model is to implement now. So let’s take advantage! 🛑
5 Students Answer Their Own Questions
Now, your class will use the resources to answer as many of their questions as they can. They have the group document. They can skip around. They can focus on their favorite questions. They can go down the list in order.
But I’d be sure to tell them you will probably not get to all of the questions!
Class, remember, as we investigate, we’re looking for answers to any of the questions the class came up with. You can go in any order. As you answer, jot down where you found the information, otherwise, we’ll run into a problem later during our discussion. Remember last time? Remember how we messed that up? So get enough info written down so that we can look it up again tomorrow or next week.
I’d remind them of the group expectations:
Friends, we’ll be using our usual set of group guidelines. No pushing, shoving, yelling, tickling, biting, sitting on laps, sitting on heads, or sitting on the ceiling. If you disagree about something, you can write down both answers. I’m putting 25 minutes on the clock. Wave me down if you need something.
Now, set a timer for however long you have left (save some time for a debrief) and get ready to facilitate.
Meanwhile: You Facilitate
Your kids are now clicking on links, flipping through books, jotting down findings, and generally just learning a bunch about the topic.
Don’t butt in more than necessary! Walk around, solve problems, resolve disputes, be a meddler in the middle, but try to let kids be as independent as you can.
Eventually, I’ll say: Ok, friends, just letting you know we have 2 minutes remaining. Once the timer beeps, I’d play out cleanup song, and we’d return to our original whole group formation.
A Note On Routines
Let’s pause and note that Group Investigation relies heavily on well-established routines.
Some teachers see this model and say “Phh, my kids could never handle that.” And the truth is that those kids could absolutely handle it… with a different teacher!
I’ve seen Group Investigation run with 1st graders, 4th graders, I did it with my 6th graders, and I’ve participated as an adult! The key is having routines in place before attempting a full group investigation.
6 Whole Group Share Out
Once everyone’s together again, we start going down the list of questions.
Did anyone find an answer to Question 1?
If someone has an answer, I type the findings into our document. Sometimes (often!) different groups find conflicting information. No big deal! I write down both answers and decide to resolve the conflict later in the unit. And many times, no one found an answer. That’s fine. I skip the question, leaving it open.
How do we wrap it all up? I always copied my mentor’s technique, asking, “What was the most interesting thing about what we just did?” You’ll hear lots of fun thoughts!
Next, Continue Teaching the Unit
Now, the beauty here is, in this opening lesson of Wind Power, kids generated a bunch of questions, answered many of them on their own, and also left us with questions to answer throughout the rest of the unit. I leave those unanswered questions up and plan the rest of the unit’s lessons to touch on those questions.
Group Investigation is perfect for building up and capturing student curiosity. Give it a try!
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