Challenge Design in Focus

Courtesy guest blogger Bill Vinton, here are a few thoughts on his perspective on the design of challenges following the Inquiry Science Institute he facilitated with Al Magnusson. I find this particularly interesting as I often find that new Critical Skills teachers get so caught up in either the scenario or the product that they lose sight of the content and process skills they’re trying to teach.

Incidentally, with respect to “inquiry-focused” challenges: Something I picked up in my earlier work on problem-based learning is that what we call challenges can be sorted into three primary focuses:

design-focused, in which the major thrust is the design/construction/fabrication of some sort of product; values-focused, in which the major thrust is the weighing of two or more competing alternatives; and inquiry-focused, in which the major thrust is to answer an intriguing question. Now, ALL challenges will have elements of all three, but it’s usually pretty easy to identify the major thrust. If you look at most challenges, particularly by science teachers, they tend to be design-focused – and this is a real trap if you’re trying to teach science.

There is nothing wrong with design-focused challenges, but it’s not really doing science – it’s doing engineering (or public relations or one of the many other things that products can accomplish). AND, it
takes extra care to ensure that the targeted knowledge is actually being used – kids can do fabulous mouse-trap powered cars and not know a thing about force, springs, energy – whatever the targeted knowledge is. And despite the value of showing how scientific knowledge can be used in practice, it’s not really DOING science. Similarly, values-focused challenges (should we build wind-towers on Vermont ridge lines?) represent a valuable, authentic opportunity for students to apply scientific ideas, and probably should be used, but again, they’re not really DOING science.

So, in (the inquiry science) institute, we tried to emphasize that we wanted challenges that require students to answer a significant scientific question of some sort. The Luft book in particular really describes what
scientific inquiry looks like in practice (as well as examples of what it is NOT).

I’ve found Gowin’s Vee-diagram A Sample Vee Diagraman invaluable tool in my own classes in helping to scaffold students’ understanding of the types of things they should be considering as they attempt to answer scientific questions, hence the reference. And, it looks as though Novak’s concept map process is a valuable pre-requisite activity to using Vee diagrams. These weren’t requirements, but we did use these ideas as a
jumping-off point for the rest of the challenge-design work.

Thanks Bill!


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