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Try this: Child-led inquiry.

This article describes an inquiry science lesson that was sparked by a child's question. In this school a science specialist (author 1) team teaches science with the kindergarten class teacher (author 2) for 1 hour per week. The class teacher integrates science at other times during the week. To foster the kindergarteners' interest about a science topic, the class teacher (Cassandra) encouraged the children to bring 'something that moves' for News time. Isabella brought 2 balls: a 'super-bouncy' ball and a 'normal' (tennis) ball. Isabella wanted to show her classmates that one of the balls bounced much higher than the other one. Isabella was disappointed that neither ball bounced as high as they did at home. This puzzled the class and they wondered why this happened. Cassandra suggested they could ask the science specialist teacher (Chris) if she could explain this observation. Together, the children and teacher devised and sent an email to Chris.
Figure 1: Email from kindergarten class (KO).

Sent: Monday, May 23, 2016 12:12 PM
To: Christine Preston
Subject: Message From KO
Dear Dr Preston,
Today Isabella brought 2 balls to school. One of her balls was a bouncy
ball. The bouncy ball bounced on the floor.
We then tried another ball. This ball didn't bouncei We were surprised.
Can you please tell us why the ball didn't bounce?
Thank you,

Responding to the children's question

To encourage the children to investigate this question on their own (before the next science lesson)m Chris replied to the email. Instead of answering the children's question directly, Chris asked the children if they could 'test' the balls on different surfaces in the classroom. She suggested they try: the carpet (where News time occurs) and the hard floor near the door. The children were surprised to find that the balls bounced differently on the two surfaces. On the harder surface, the 'super-bouncy' ball bounced much higher than the other ball (like it did at Isabella's home). The children decided that Isabella's kitchen (where she had bounced the balls at home) must have a hard floor like the classroom. Isabella agreed and said she did not play with the balls in her bedroom because they did not bounce well on the soft carpet floor.

Capitalising on the children's interest

Spurred on by the children's interest in finding out more about what affects how balls bounce, the teachers devised a lesson to allow further exploration of this scientific phenomenon. The engaging and productive learning experience that resulted is outlined next. This demonstrates how the excitement and interest garnered by teachers in response to one child's question can be the stimulus for productive investigation.

Introducing the investigation

We started the lesson by talking about the email that Chris received from the class. The children recalled the question they were interested in answering: 'Why did one of the balls bounce higher than the other?' The following dialogue was used to elicit the children's ideas.

Teacher: Isabella was it the carpet that you were bouncing them on?

Isabella: Mhhm

Teacher: Yeah. So, why do we think one bounced well on the carpet and the other one didn't? Any ideas why?

Nicole: Because if one ball is really soft that means it can bounce really high and if they're hard they can't bounce really high very much.

Teacher: Excellent. So, if the ball is hard or soft that might make a difference to how it bounces.

Amelia: The difference it bounces, it might bounce slower on here, the carpet, it's not that smooth and it will bounce more on that one, this has more things to hold it on.

Teacher: OK, so it also depends what surface it bounces on, doesn't it?

Next, the teachers showed the children a special ball called an 'off road' ball that is supposed to bounce on just about anything. The children were asked to predict: 'Do you think this ball will bounce well on the carpet?' They all agreed the ball would bounce well. Before testing, the ball was passed around for the children to feel. The children were asked: 'Is the ball easy to squeeze?' One child said, 'It's really hard'. The teacher said, 'While you are squeezing the ball, I want you to think about how that might make a difference to how it bounces'. Another child said, 'It's got a little bit of softness in it'. After all the children had had a turn feeling the ball the teacher held up the ball ready to test how it bounced. She asked, 'Do you think it will be like one of Isabella's balls and not bounce well, or do you think it will bounce?' The teacher dropped the ball on the carpet a few times so the children could observe the bounce. The children all agreed the ball bounced well and the teacher said, 'So some balls will bounce very well on carpet and others might not'. This is one idea the children have learnt about the interaction between different types of balls and soft surfaces.

The class was then rearranged to form a semicircle with one teacher in the middle at the front, the other teacher at the back, near the children. First, the teacher dropped the ball (from about teacher knee height) and then asked the children, 'Did you see anything happen to the ball?' One child responded: 'It went lower and lower'. Involving one of the children as a reference point, the teacher held the ball up (knee high on child) and said, 'So, let's see how high it bounces' (see Figure 2a).

'Now, if I drop it from this height (waist high on child) we are going to see how high it bounces up on Stephanie'. Gemma showed it bounced up to Stephanie's knees. The teacher reiterated, 'So, if we drop it from here, the ball bounces back up to her knees.' She then asked, 'Do you think it will bounce the same if we drop the ball from different heights?' This question created instant discussion as the children thought about what might happen. The teachers then asked the children if this was a question they might like to try to answer. The response was a unanimous: 'Yesi'

To scaffold the investigation procedure another child was chosen. Chris held the ball at the student's waist (Figure 2a) and asked, 'If I drop it from her waist, how high do you think the ball will bounce?' The children watched the drop and observed where the ball rebounded to. Chris then continued to demonstrate with the ball being dropped from different heights: shoulder height (Figure 2c), head height (Figure 2d) and above the child's head. The children actively engaged in finding out how high the ball bounced each time. To conclude this part of the learning experience, Chris asked the following questions: 'So, what did you notice about how high the ball bounced depending on the different height?'; 'So, is there a relationship (pattern)?'; and 'The higher we drop it from, does it bounce higher or lower?' As there was some confusion as to the answer to this last question, it was decided that the class should do an investigation to help answer the question. Chris showed that she had brought along a box of different balls to see if the type of ball matters. The teachers then explained that each table group would get one ball that they could use to answer the question: How high does the ball bounce if we drop it from different heights? We wanted to see if all balls bounced higher if we dropped them from different heights. So, the question the children were going to investigate became--How does height change the way a ball bounces?

Planning the investigation

Cassandra asked the students: 'How can we do our investigation so that we are all doing the same thing? This will mean that we can compare our observations between table groups. What is something we will need to do the same?' Karen suggested, 'We need to drop the balls from the same height'. The children agreed and Cassandra asked, 'Is there something in the room we could use as a guide to help us drop the balls from the same height?' Some children jumped up and scouted around the room before their eyes locked onto the box of wooden construction blocks. 'The blocks, the blocks we could use these', they called. Cassandra and Chris agreed they would be perfect. Excitedly, the children suggested they could use one block for Height 1, two blocks on top of each other for Height 2 and three blocks for Height 3. The teachers and children talked about how they could do the investigation by dropping each of the balls from the same heights and seeing how far the balls bounced for the three levels. Three simple steps were developed to do the investigation (see below).

Conducting the investigation

The children returned to their desks and the teachers distributed the materials: one ball and three blocks for each table group. Each group followed the steps below with their ball.

Step 1: Hold the ball at the top of an upright block, drop the ball and see how high it bounces. Repeat 2 times to check if the result is the same.

Step 2: Place two blocks on top of each other. Repeat Step 1.

Step 3: Place another block on top of the first two. Repeat Step 1 again.

At this point, Chris realised they hadn't thought about how to record the findings of the investigation. Cassandra suggested the children could use the iPads to video record the bounce. In a flurry, the children grabbed the iPads, turned them on and started recording each other testing the bounce of the balls (see Figure 4). This digital technology was ideal for recording the results and the children happily took turns filming each other doing the investigation.

Using digital technologies to analyse the results

Cassandra selected some of the videos to play back to the children in the next science lesson. We projected the videos onto the interactive white board and were able to pause the action to help the children see the point where the ball stopped moving upwards (bounce apex). Chris then showed the children where they could record this on the specially developed worksheet to show how high the ball bounced for Height 1. The children coloured in the dotted bar beside Block 1 to represent the bounce height (see Figure 5).

Two more video clips were shown to view the results of Heights 2 and 3 with the children recording the bounce height each time. The children were then asked to think about the results and to look for a pattern. They were then directed to return to their desks and try to write an answer to the question we investigated. The teachers assisted the children with their writing and spelling.

Assessing children's skills and understanding

The completed worksheet and the videos were used by the teachers to collect information for assessment. Skills in working cooperatively, following procedural steps, making observations and measuring informal measurements were shown in the videos. Recording results, looking for patterns and using evidence from investigations could be determined from the completed work samples. For example, children who were able to make a generalisation from the results wrote sentences like the following.

* The drop height of the ball makes it bounce higher.

* When you drop the ball higher it bounces more.

* The higher you drop it the higher it bounces.

* The ball bounces higher each time.

Children who were unable to make a generalisation wrote about other aspects of the investigation. For example:

* We tried to work out how to measure the height of the ball--describes the method.

* The ball bounces in the middle of the blocks--a generalisation that lacks relationship to height.

* The ball went higher than the middle when we had 3 blocks--states one of the results.

* The ball bounced higher--lacks comparative details.

Classroom teacher's perspective

The students were highly engaged throughout the duration of the lesson as it was based upon questions that they had posed. Their genuine interest was evident in the way they continued to ask questions throughout the activities and in their persistence during the hands-on investigations. The investigation was appropriate for the students as it was based on their prior knowledge of the movement of balls acquired through playful experiences. The students developed their understanding of a fair test and refined their ability to record their results with accuracy. Integrating the use of ICT into the investigation increased student engagement as it ensured all students had a role during the experimentation. Having video footage of the investigation also allowed for the students to reflect on their learning and address any misconceptions they may have held.

Science pedagogy

The way we, as teachers, encouraged the children to discover the answer to the question themselves is a good example of child-led inquiry. Chris could have simply told the children the answer to their question, but this would have lost the opportunity to position them as "producers of understanding of science and learning" (Siry & Max, 2013, p. 899). This approach not only empowered the children as knowledge seekers, it built their confidence and competence in; doing science. Cassandra was attuned to the children's wonderings and between us we were able to focus on "open-ended ways of asking questions that prompt further observations and speculations" thus enabling the children to become "agentic participants in the creation of science investigations" (Siry & Max, 2013, p. 884).

Including the children in the planning of the 'bouncing balls' investigation helped develop their skills in the practices of science and encourage positive dispositions. As Siry and Kremer argue "the learning of science is a socially situated, culturally negotiated enactment, and children's experiences are central to their developing meanings on scientific concepts" (2011, p. 645). The children felt that their questions, ideas and suggestions were valued by us as teachers as we encouraged and supported their inquiring nature. Our initial intention for this lesson was geared towards helping the children link science understanding with everyday experiences of ball play. Later, we realised that co-construction of a hands-on experience emergent from children's interest had morphed into a significant inquiry-learning episode.

Use of the iPads to assist in collecting evidence during the investigation is a good example of productive use of digital technologies. The children had a clear purpose for using the devices and the recordings were used effectively to support their analysis of the information collected. The data comprised video clips that were meaningful to the children. Being able to pause the video helped the children interpret the dynamic event that happened quickly during the actual investigation. Whilst the children could use their hands to estimate the height of bounce beside the block as a reference point, this may have been too fast for some children to observe. The video record enabled the recording to be stopped so that the children could clearly see and measure accurately the height of bounce. The event could also be reviewed multiple times to help children make the connection between drop levels and bounce height. Discussing the videos, analysing the results, and recording their observations onto the visual diagram on the record page also demonstrates that the science investigation was enacted through multi-modal means (Siry, Ziegler & Max, 2012).

Although this was a physics-based lesson, a similar approach could be used in other contexts, such as natural science phenomena. For example, children's ideas were the stimulus for investigating rainbows with 5- and 6-year-olds (Siry & Kremer, 2011). More recently Walker (2017) used a child's question to engage young children in an outdoor exploration about leaves.

Curriculum links

This learning experience was designed for foundation year students based on the Australian Curriculum: Science (ACARA, 2016) and includes the following interrelated strands.

Physical sciences (Foundation)

The way objects move depends on a variety of factors, including their size and shape

* observing the way different shaped objects such as balls, blocks and tubes move

Science Inquiry Skills (Year 1)

Questioning and predicting

Pose and respond to questions, and make predictions about familiar objects and events (ACSIS037)

* thinking about 'What will happen if...?' type questions about everyday objects and events

* using the senses to explore the local environment to pose interesting questions, make inferences and predictions

Planning and conducting

Participate in guided investigations to explore and answer questions (ACSIS038)

* manipulating objects and materials and making observations of the results

Use informal measurements to collect and record observations, using digital technologies as appropriate

* using units that are familiar to students from home and school, such as cups (cooking), hand spans (length) and walking paces (distance) to make and record observations with teacher guidance.

Processing and analysing data

Use a range of methods to sort information, including drawings and provided tables and, through discussion, compare observations with predictions

* using matching activities, including identifying similar things, odd one out and opposites

* discussing original predictions and, with guidance, comparing these to their observations

* exploring ways of recording and sharing information through class discussion

* jointly constructing simple column graphs and picture graphs to represent class investigations


Compare observations with those of others (ACSIS041)

* discussing observations with other students to see similarities and differences in results


Represent and communicate observations and ideas in a variety of ways (ACSIS042)

* presenting ideas to other students, both one-to-one and in small groups

* discussing with others what was discovered from an investigation

Science as a Human Endeavour (Year 2)

Nature and development of science

Science involves observing, asking questions about, and describing changes in, objects and events (ACSHE034)

* describing everyday events and experiences and changes in our environment using knowledge of science

* suggesting how everyday items work, using knowledge of forces or materials


ACARA I The Australian Curriculum I Version 8.3 dated Friday, 16 December 2016. -10-curriculum/science/

Siry, C, & Kremer, I. (2011). Children explain the rainbow: Using young children's ideas to guide science curricula. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 20(5), 643.

Siry, C, & Max, C. (2013). The collective construction of a science unit: Framing curricula as emergent from kindergarteners' wonderings. Science Education, 97(6), 878-902.

Siry, C, Ziegler, G., & Max, C. (2012). "Doing science" through discourse-in-interaction: Young children's science investigations at the early childhood level. Science Education, 96(2), 311-326.

Walker, C. (2017). Turning over a new leaf. Primary Science 150, 23-24.

Dr Christine Preston is a lecturer in science education in The Sydney School of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney and kindergarten science specialist at Abbotsleigh.

Ms Cassandra McKie is a classroom teacher at Abbotsleigh.
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Author:Preston, Christine; McKie, Cassandra
Publication:Teaching Science
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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