Sunday, 17 February 2013

Space ...Final thoughts

This is, I think, the last post on this Cycles and Systems Unit.
1. Tuning in to Space
2. Next Steps in Space
3. Do they Really Understand?

It is always hard when working one's way through a completely new unit to know how much time different parts will take. You can plan in detail and find that the plans are almost useless, since everything depends on what the students know and they what find out, BUT more importantly what understandings they acquire. Finding out stuff and actually understanding are not the same thing. And when researching (not just googling) is new, some things just take longer.

Our unit on Cycles and Systems was designed to address new standards and benchmarks our school has adopted. The focus according to the S&B was very clearly Space, the Solar System, Day and Night, Seasons...

  • Earth's rotation on its axis causes regular changes including day and night
  • The Earth is part of a system of planets orbiting around a star (the sun)
  • Observable changes occur in the sky and landscape

Because our students had done an almost similar unit in Grade 3, but had focused mainly on finding out about the planets in our Solar System, we decided to concentrate on the explanations of the various cycles, day and night, seasons, tides, etc. These, though part of that Grade 3 unit, were concepts too advanced for the average third grader.

In fact, explaining why we have seasons was challenging for quite a few fifth graders too! Most time in the unit was spent on reading about the cycles, discussing them, watching videos and making models. It occurred to us that quite a few of our students have always lived in the tropics and have not experienced living in places where there is a change of seasons. 

If, in the future, we have to include learning about the planets in our Solar System when the grade 3 classes who didn't do their Grade 3 Space unit arrive in Grade 5, we may find difficulty using a similar time frame.

In this unit this year, because of that repetition in Grade 3, we also asked the question, how have people's ideas and explanations about space changed over time. This does not link back to the S&B, but we felt it gave students a bit of perspective, understanding that we did not always know what we know now. My class had only 2 days to look at this aspect and we used our school's online databases as well as the NASA website and library books to study changes in scientific thinking from ancient civilizations and relatively recent changes in thinking in the European Middle Ages. In order to share our collected learnings, we used Google Presentation, with partners taking 1 or 2 slides each.

We do collaborations on Google docs fairly regularly. This was the first time that students were ALL able to do this without one or two messing with someone else's work! (Digital Citizenship lessons are working...) Earth's Place in Space.

At the closing of a unit, we will always ask students what new knowledge they found interesting. We ask what skills, they learned and found useful, or skills they improved on. We also ask how their thinking has changed. Here are a couple of reflections from students' blogs.

Next year, our students will also come with that grade 3 prior knowledge. But they will also come with more experience of inquiring. I am hoping that there will be less need to scaffold and there will be more opportunity for students to build their own inquiry. 

Plenty to talk about in our team unit discussion next week!

Photos are my own.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

3. Do They Really Understand?

Continuing the reflecting on the unit: Cycles and Systems
(1. Tuning in to Space )
(2. Next Steps in Space )
After all the investigating, questioning, discussing, connecting, reflecting, drawing, reading, note-taking, writing, explaining, interpreting that my class has done on Cycles and Systems, I am still wondering..... do they really understand? How could we check this?

My colleague and next classroom neighbour, Peter came up with the following idea:

The connections between the earth’s cycles to its place in space are significant to life on earth

Think about how life on earth would be affected by each of these occurrences:

1.    Supposing the earth started moving further away from the moon...
2.    Supposing the earth started moving further away from the sun...
3.    Supposing the earth continued to orbit around the sun, but it stopped rotating...
4.    Supposing the earth continued to rotate, but it stopped orbiting the sun....

Take each one separately. Show your ideas, e.g. on a mind map. Make sure your notes are good enough to help you talk about your ideas in as much detail as you can, with examples of situations that might happen as a result of the change. 

What things would/might change, directly? (main branches of your mind map)
What things would/might change indirectly? (twigs off the main branches)

On the face of it these are challenging scenarios and you definitely have to understand what is happening in order to imagine a reverse situation. My students worked in pairs and had a fair go after some initial discussions together.
 Taking time to visit each others mind maps gave students the opportunity to ask questions and extend their thinking - which is a big part of what we want to do....
......extend the thinking....

Photos are mine.