Tuesday, October 15, 2013

"Tuning in" to Cycles- starting a unit of inquiry

Do you teach a science unit on cycles? Well, if you do, keep reading! Today I'd like to share the lesson I used to introduce our current science unit; this lesson can be applicable to other content areas as well!

Clipart: Graphics From the Pond

My school follows the PYP curriculum framework, so we teach science and social studies through units of inquiry that focus on universal concepts. (The PYP is common in international schools, and some states in the U.S., however, it is largely unknown to most American teachers.) I absolutely LOVE this unit because students understand the concept of a cycle pretty quickly because it is such a part of our daily lives.

This lesson idea comes from Kath Murdoch, an Aussie educator and leader in the field of inquiry-based learning. The strategy is called "Picture Priorities". It asks students to rank, sequence and/or make sense of a series of pictures as a way of helping them to consider what they already know and/or how they feel about a topic. I think this strategy is fantastic because it gets kids thinking! It's a great way to assess their prior knowledge, and it's a lot more fun than the standard "KWL" chart!

First, gather pictures related to your topic (enough for students to work in groups). Photos from old magazines or calendar can be the best sources, but in a pinch you can look for images online and print them- that's what I did. Since we're learning about cycles, I collected 5 different sets of 4 pictures (too many would be overwhelming for a firstie). The cycles I included were: day and night, water, frog's life, butterfly's life, and seasons.

Before the lesson, you will probably want to consider your groups. I have 20 students so I organized 5 groups of 4 kids- I've noticed that any more than four may allow some students to take a back seat and not say anything. I was careful to balance personalities, behaviors and language abilities as this is a lesson just as much about communication and cooperation as it is cycles!

Next, give the students the pictures along with a large piece of butcher paper on which to order the pictures and record their thoughts. I didn't tell them anything about the content of the pictures; I wanted to leave it totally to their interpretations. My directions were, "I'm giving your group a set of pictures, Your job is to figure out how they go together in a meaningful way. Share your thinking and then you must agree on how to arrange them on the paper."

Now students get to thinking! I walked around the room to monitor and make sure that all group members were contributing their ideas. I really had to hustle with 5 groups in the room!

See my friend in yellow? I kindly reminded him to participate :)
These students were discussing what they knew about the water cycle.
You may notice that the pictures are not "perfect". I actually think this is okay because it forces them to discuss what the picture actually represents, or what it is "supposed to" show. It can also draw out misconceptions, as you'll see later in this post!

Once groups came to a consensus about the order of their pictures, I asked them to write one of their thoughts, anything really, about 1 or all of the pictures. Many of them chose to break this task up by having each person in the group write a sentence about one of the pictures.

These students prepare to write their ideas on their poster.
Finally, you have the groups share their posters with the class or debrief the strategy and save the sharing for the next day. I chose to have students share the following day because of our schedule. When we debriefed, I kept it short and focused; "How did your thinking change while you were arranging the pictures?" Some students shared that they recognized that the pictures were all part of a cycle, whereas some students did not have any prior knowledge and they really had to think about it.

I also kept the sharing very focused the next day. While I gave students the time they needed to think, I was mindful of the time and how long I was asking them to sit and participate in a discussion- they are first graders after all! When I invited each member of a group to share their thinking, and I purposely started with the "shy" child who doesn't always get the chance to speak up, or the child I thought might have trouble coming up with something to say, that way I could ask some guiding questions to help them articulate their ideas.

A student shares his thinking about the day & night cycle.

Some students shared misconceptions which we discussed as a group. For example, the child below thought that the picture of the butterfly egg was a small flower, and that the butterfly would grow from a flower. Instead of me correcting the student, her classmates respectfully disagreed as we discussed what they know about life cycles. Fantastic thinking and learning! I loved sitting back and letting them talk. While I guided the discussion, I tried not to dominate it. I found out which students had a lot of prior knowledge of cycles, and who had a passion for inquiry and/or science.

This student exposes her misconception about where butterflies come from.
"Picture Priorities" was a great way to dig-in to our new unit. The kids were so engaged and loved the whole process. This strategy could be used for many units and topics like how-to writing or story retelling to name a couple! All you need are some pictures- the rest comes from your students!

Thanks for stopping by!

Signature photo ScreenShot2013-04-26at54143PM.png


  1. I've never heard of that strategy and I love it! Talk about deep thinking!
    Barbara @
    Grade ONEderful
    Ruby Slippers Blog Designs

  2. Excellent strategy for tuning in. I modified this idea for my 4th & 5th graders when inquiring into cycles at their respective levels.

  3. Much helpful for interested teachers

  4. Great idea for my unit. Thanks.

    I am also a PYP teacher, teaching grade 1. Please visit my blog www.kelasku.weebly.com


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