Provoking Our Students

This year we have been experimenting with starting each unit with a provocation – something that gets the students thinking. Something that gets them excited about a new Unit of Inquiry. Something that provides them with an experience or context they can draw from over the course of the unit. Provocations can look different at different ages. Here are a few examples of the provocations our teaching teams have tried so far this year:

Grade 5:  Migration transforms individuals and communities.

The grade 5 teachers told their classes that something urgent has come up and they are unable to teach them for the next half an hour. The teachers then dropped the Grade 5 students off at various classrooms around the school (from Grade 6 – Grade 12). Some students were put in classes alone; some were put with a partner; some were put with a large group of classmates. Students were left for 30 minutes and then collected by their homeroom teacher and brought back to class. The teachers then facilitated a discussion around their experience having to leave their homeroom and what it was like to be in a new class. Students discussed the differences in how they were included in the new class community or ignored. Students discussed the differences in their experience depending on if they were placed alone or with other classmates. Students discussed how their presence affected the class they were placed in. Students discussed their emotions moving from a familiar place to a new place with new people and new expectations.

Grade 3: People can create messages to target specific audiences.

All the Grade 3 students were brought into our school’s Multipurpose Room and shown a short commercial (made by the teachers). The video informed the students that they would be going on a field trip to the best restaurant in the country. The video showed pictures of mouth-watering food and shared statistics about how popular the restaurant was. The students were cheering! After the movie, the teachers brought their classes to our school cafeteria. The students were outraged! The teachers brought their classes back to their classroom and had a discussion about why the students were disappointed. They talked about what elements of the video set up their specific expectations. They talked about why they were let down. They questioned where the quotes and stats that were shown in the video came from.

KG 2: Living things depend on natural resources for survival.

When the KG 2 students returned from recess one day, they walked into their class with different “things” on top of their tables. There was a real fish and a stuffed fish, a real plant and an artificial plant, a toy doll, a plate of dirt, a bucket of water, a rock, a carrot, a flashlight etc. Without any specific instructions from the teacher, students curiously walked around the room and explored the artifacts on the table. They looked at them, touched them, talked about them with other classmates, asked the teacher questions about them and some even grabbed paper and a pencil and took notes! After the walk-about, students were invited to the carpet to share their questions and observations with the class. This unstructured exploration led to discussions about real and fake, alive and not-alive, and what things needed in order to survive.

All of these provocations got the students interested in their upcoming unit and inspired them to start asking questions. The provocations also provided a context that students and teachers could continually refer to throughout the unit to aid in understanding. These provocations allowed students to experience and relate to the bigger concepts that they would be inquiring into (migration, manipulation, resources etc.)

If you are planning on trying some provocations with your students, here a few important things to think about:

  1. Do it before you start a unit. It is much more effective to let students experience a concept before trying to learn about it. For example, the Grade 5 students experienced what it was like to move to a new place before they ever heard the word migration.
  2. Debrief is key! A provocation without a debrief is no provocation at all. Often, provocations rely on some misdirection by the teacher, so it is essential to let them in on the purpose of the provocation after it happens. That way students don’t go home telling their parents that their teachers were “too busy to look after them” or “we were tricked about a field trip.” A debrief also allows students to deeply reflect on their experience and begin to connect it with the upcoming unit. Teachers should be prepared to facilitate the discussion with purposeful questions to guide the students’ thinking towards the central idea of the unit.
  3. Refer back to it. One of the best things about provocation is that it provides a common experience for students to draw on when they are working with important concepts in a unit. If you have a successful provocation, make sure you continually refer to it so students can use it as a framework for understanding something new.

“Remember when you were migrants and moved to a new class…”

“Remember when we were mislead by an advertisement…”

4.  Consider age, culture and feelings. It’s a fine balance between provoking the students’ thinking and provoking angry parents. Make sure you are considerate and purposeful with the type of provocations and how they will be received by students and parents. Here are a few examples of provocations we discussed and quickly disregarded:

  • Not letting students eat or drink for a day so they can understand that living things have certain requirement’s in order to survive.
  • Asking our janitor not to clean a classroom for a week, so students can see how people depend on services within a community.
  • Telling our Grade 5 students that our school is in danger and we all have to move somewhere else.

Our school is relatively new to starting each unit with a provocation. We would love any feedback or comments you have about the provocations we have tried. We would also love to hear from you about successful provocations you have used.

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