Sherlock Holmes is famous for making amazing inferences from tiny details. Here’s an example from Young Sherlock Holmes:
Holmes famously calls this process “deductive thinking.” But, guess what? It’s actually the complete opposite. Moving from details towards a big idea is “inductive thinking” (and, yes, you should correct people at parties!).
I’m going to be using Depth and Complexity emoji icons in this article. If you’re not familiar, read more here!
Deductive or Inductive
Inductive thinking: Holmes sees a bunch of seemingly unrelated details, notes patterns, and forms a statement about Watson. Concrete to abstract, details towards a big idea, or 🌻 ➡️ 🏠.
In the Deductive version of this, Watson would tell Holmes that he’s a writer from the north whose dad is a doctor. Then he’d ask Holmes to prove it. Holmes would look for the evidence. Here we go abstract to concrete, big idea to details, or 🏠 ➡️ 🌻.
Neither is better, but they provide two totally different workouts for the brain. Deductive lessons tend to be much neater since the teacher is in more control. Indutive lessons allow a lot of room for students to think but need to be scaffolded to avoid frustration.
Deductive to Inductive
A typical direct instruction lesson builds on deductive thinking. We tell students the big idea/rule/main point right away. “Today we’re learning that…” and then the rest of the lesson is about showing examples, practicing, and generally supporting that initial big idea.
I taught Ancient Egypt and wanted my students to learn that “The Nile river was both helpful and harmful to the Egyptians.” I’d tell them that statement right away and then show a bunch of evidence that supports it.
This kind of lesson is probably not that hard to imagine. Most of my lessons built on a deductive base.
Now let’s transform this into an inductive lesson.
As a rookie teacher, I learned Hilda Taba’s “Concept Formation” model, which is my go-to model for big inductive thinking.
- Students generate a big brainstorm of unorganized details about the topic.
- They look for patterns within those details – starting with pairs and then expanding them to into 3 to 5 larger groups.
- Once those groups are filled, students generate 1-2 word labels for each group.
- Finally, they create a big idea statement using those labels.
Notice that students immediately manipulate details into abstract categories and then into an even more abstract generalization. We’re going 🌻 Details to 🌀 Patterns to 🏠 Big Ideas. Climbing the ladder of abstraction!
This experience is also open-ended since students will arrive at very different (but still correct) big ideas in the end.
An Inductive Nile Lesson
We begin this inductive lesson by brainstorming all the details we know about The Nile. Students have to be armed with facts before they can build big ideas. I ran this lesson at the end of a unit, so my kids knew a lot of details, but you could also have them read the textbook, watch videos, and read articles in order to gather facts.
Then, I collect all of their facts about the Nile onto a group graphic organizer. Kids would shout them out and I’d frantically type them in.
A possible brainstorm:
|The Nile River|
|Provided freshwater||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||Provided food through fishing|
You want lots of details for students to manipulate. Dozens of facts.
Now, students (in small groups or individually) begin finding groups of details that share some common element. Start with pairs, and then grow them into larger groups. Students get to have some freedom here in deciding how things are related. We’re moving to “Analyze” on Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Once the details are all categorized, then students label their groups. We do this at the end so that the groups can remain fluid. Kids might change the why of the group as they’re thinking so we don’t make the groups’ names official until now. We’re also moving up another level of abstraction as kids squeeze all of the meaning in their group down to one or two words.
I might, for example, group my Nile River details into three groups labeled: travel, food, and danger.
Then, using those group names, students develop a generalization encompassing their understanding of the Nile.
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 judgment or analysis in their statement. This will be the most challenging part of the lesson for them.
Of course, Student Group A will end up with a different statement than Student Group B, C, and D. This provides a fantastic opportunity for students to think about all of the different big ideas.
We could even extend this lesson by now introducing more facts about the Nile to test students’ generalizations. Does the big idea truly hold up?
So we saw an example using the Nile River, but here are some other ways I used inductive thinking:
- I did this at the end of stories. We’d gather all the details about a character and then create a big idea statement about them.
- Put a bunch of math problems (or heck, even just a bunch of numbers) out as your “details” and ask students to group them however they’d like. I might ask them to avoid the most obvious groupings. What statement can we create?
- Throw a whole bunch of plural words on the board and then make groups (here’s a writeup for this one).
- Look at a dozen characters, form groups, and then construct a statement about them. I used this in my character archetypes lesson.
- Instead of class rules, get more abstract and form a class motto using inductive thinking.
And inductive thinking isn’t restricted to Taba’s Concept Formation model. If you’ve ever used Concept Attainment, this is also an inductive model.
A Real Mental Workout
Inductive thinking, or forming a big idea from details, is a totally different way of thinking than deductive thinking. I find that many kids are initially hesitant. This requires risk-taking. They’ll long for the simple, teacher-guided lessons they’re used to. But we’re creating thinkers here. On the other hand, you’ll suddenly find some kids coming to life! They were born to think inductively. Use them as your exemplars. Show the rest of the class that you’re open to unexpected, creative thinking.
Oh, another thing I love about this model is that kids are clearly doing the thinking while I am “merely” facilitating. They can use me as a resource, but I’m not controlling the flow as I’d do in a more typical lesson.
Finally, consider inductive thinking as another spice you can use throughout the school year. It’s a way to add variety and create flexible thinkers and is certainly not the only way to run a lesson.
Next: Inductive Math Lessons!
Next time, we’ll continue our look at inductive learning by examining inductive lessons in math. Enjoy and let me know how this goes with your own students.
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