Thursday, March 21, 2013

The 5 E's Learning Cycle: An Inquiring Methodology

In Science Methods today we were talking about teaching via inquiry. This is a topic we've dealt with before, but it's one that students who haven't experienced inquiry-infused science classes before really struggle with. And to be honest, that's most of my students.

So I'm trying to find ways of making it as tangible for them as possible. We do a lot of science together, which helps them to picture it. Today, I wanted to clearly explain some of my thinking behind the way I've structured the activities we've done lately. So I explained that I have been using a methodology termed the Learning Cycle, which is sometimes referred to as the "5 E's." The HaikuDeck below was a key part of our discussion today:

This isn't the only way to teach science, of course. But I've put it into practice myself as a middle school science teacher, and it really does work well as a way of coaching students into doing science, rather than just learning about science.

I find the following ideas crucial for this methodology (which might also determine the success or failure of a teacher's use of this approach):

  1. Don't minimize the importance of the "Engage" movement. Students need to have some sort of hook to get them primed, asking questions, thinking, and ready to learn. Discrepant events are great for this, but there are other great ways to get students engaged. Children's literature and storytelling are also fantastic hooks.
  2. When investigating in the "Explore" movement, do make sure the activity is both hands-on and "minds-on." I've found it works best if this investigation is not a cookbook-style activity (do this, do that, bake at 350°, and you get a chocolate cate), but rather a more open-ended investigation that prompts further questions and pushes students to have to figure things out and make inferences based on what they observe.
  3. In the "Explain" movement, it is SO tempting for you as teacher to be the "Explainer." Fight this urge; this movement works best if the students do most of the talking. They should be the ones explaining their thinking. That doesn't mean you won't be an active participant as well, however; this is a key place to guide the discussion and try to probe for misconceptions, and prompt alternative lines of thinking that will lead to more scientific understanding.
  4. Don't skip the "Elaborate" movement! This is an extremely important part--having the students put the pieces together and demonstrate their new understandings. Whether that be another hands-on investigation (preferably student-designed!), or a research project, or some sort of creative response, this movement is where the new understandings are consolidated and made explicit.
  5. Finally, while the "Evaluate" movement has an air of finality to it, recognize that this cycle is a cycle--the students' elaborating work might prompt further questions, that might be the kickstart of an "Engage" movement for another learning cycle. Evaluating students work need not be an end of learning. Also, the final assessment of a particular learning cycle should not be the only assessment that takes place; ideally, ongoing formative assessment will be part of every movement!
One final note: while we were talking about this specifically as a methodology for teaching science in elementary and middle school, this approach would transfer well to most any subject area and to any grade level. I hope you'll consider giving it a try, and sharing your experiences with putting the 5 E's into practice in your own classroom.

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