Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it ignited new learning for our first graders.

A detailed first grade PBL built around curiosity and asking questions. Author: Audrey Lash, First Grade Teacher.

Entry Event: Armed with a clipboard, a question organizer, an iPad, and a pencil. Students went on a “surprise” field trip to our media center. Directions were (in small groups) go to each QR code and uncover the learning video behind it. Then, ask as many questions as you can! What child doesn’t like a little bit of mystery and asking all the questions he or she wants?

It’s the age-old “problem-based” story. Teachers teach a set curriculum. Students are often bored or are way more engaged in subjects of their own interests. After the entry event we posed this story to our students and asked the driving question, “How can we let our curiosity guide our learning?” Coming off the high of the entry event, students said,

  • We KNOW:  We like learning about stuff we WANT to learn. We like doing EXPERIMENTS and getting dirty. We like OPTIONS. We might work TOGETHER on a big project. We might form LEARNING CLUBS. If we’re bored, we’re not learning.
  • We WONDER:What is curiosity?Is curiosity a fancy word for learning? How does curiosity guide our learning? Is curiosity a part of our schema? What does curiosity make us learn? What does being curious have to do with learning?  Do we have to research?

Our first graders latched onto that learning club idea. As teachers, we latched on to the idea that learning and curiosity go hand-in-hand. We must make that learning like a surprise gift. One that they can’t wait to open.

Our next step: BUILD excitement around being curious. 4 items were gift wrapped in little bags for each table group: wooden-capital Q’s with question words, post-its, new fancy pens, and a glow in the dark ring. Each item to help us investigate that fancy word “curiosity” from our needs-to-knows and to prompt more questioning like our entry event. Our first graders quickly and CURIOUSLY tore into their gift bags. Finding they must use the question words to write tons of questions on post-its – allowing their curiosity to “shine” through. We had a whole wonder wall in less than 10 minutes; plus all the questions we asked in our entry event.

Over the next few days, we read mentor texts like Meet Einstein (by Mariela Kleiner) and On a Beam of Light (by Jennifer Berne). We capitalized on Albert Einstein as our guru of asking questions on all subjects. We channeled his spirit and asked more curious questions. Then, the hard work began. We sorted our questions based on (thick) hamburger questions and (thin) grilled cheese questions. Curiosity brings us all kinds of wonder, but we were looking for the juiciest kind. From all the hamburger questions, we found patterns and categorized them by topic. Topics like earth, water, humans, plants, animals, technology, and babies arose.

“AHA! This is where we can form those learning clubs.” We based learning clubs around topics we were most curious about. 6 groups formed and they sifted through “hamburger” questions on their topic and narrowed their curiosity to one key topic question.

  • Curious questions in my class were: Why do babies have to drink milk? How do we have smart phones? Why do plants need leaves? Why does the sky turn different colors? How can we have super powers or be “super”? Why do elephants take mud baths?

We tested our team’s beginning collaboration with another gift wrapped surprise. Learning clubs were surprised with the task of putting a puzzle together. This showed teachers and groups how well we’d work together and what challenges we might face ahead. We signed team contracts and charted what a learning club should look like, sound like, and feel like. Learning clubs were in went through independent and guided research during literacy tasks. Many check-ins had to do with “I found these answers, now what? What do I understand now?” We jigsawed with other learning clubs to learn and ask clarifying questions of their understandings. We diagramed understanding and talked to experts.  Learning clubs also partnered up to venn-diagram how their curious questions and understandings were similar. The next step in the process was for each learning club to design an experiment or observational hunt based on their understandings. (A great mentor text: 11 Experiments that Failed by Jenny Offill).

  • My students designed experiments like: Observe one plant with leaves and one without. / Use mud on our own skin and see what happens. / Shine a flashlight (acting as the sun) through a piece of glass (acting as the atmosphere) to see if the light scatters. / Observe the ingredients on different types of milks. / Tinker and observe old and new phones.

So much learning and excitement because students had a VOICE in what they were learning. And, this is where we are. Next steps? Keep experimenting, keep showing our understandings in a variety of ways. The other day, there was murmur of students saying, “I wish we could ask others our question to see if they know what we know.” The students are leading the way. Listening to this one conversation shows us they’re ready for an authentic audience… perhaps even a “learning showcase” of sorts.

This Curiosity PBL is quite like a Genius Hour or an introduction to what inquiry is for first graders. Our main transfer for students was for them to learn to independently let their curiosity guide them to learning. No more asking a question and just getting an answer from an adult. Now, they have strategies for finding answers on their own.

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Elementary PBL Reflection

Author: Audrey Lash, Second Grade Teacher.

I recently read and listened to a great Google Hangout by the BIE’s Jorn Larmer and Gina Olabuenaga (my certification teacher). The hangout was all about Managing Projects in Elementary Schools. Teachers like Kelly Reseigh and Kevin Armstrong inspired me to try to answer their reflective questions, too. These amazing educators showcase that elementary PBL can work! (See full Hangout and Questions)

I work at Promise Road Elementary in Noblesville, Indiana. We’ve taken on the challenge and excitement of aspiring to be wall-to-wall pbl. We opened last year in August 2012. I write this post to reflect on the same issues that face my school and push myself to think about how we support this inquiry based instruction. Here are my reflections on the same questions from the BIE Hangout.

Question 1: What is the role of classroom culture in managing a project?

I think part of building this culture is giving students many opportunities to utilize the 4 C’s. You have to build an environment where students feel comfortable synergizing and collaborating. You can create critical thinking opportunities in each lesson. It’s all about the questions you and your students ask that push your thinking forward. With these foundations, the projects will be easier to manage. For primary, here’s a great list of videos that can help model the collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking with primary students.

Question 2: How do you handle the lack of independence in primary?

You can use your student NTK’s to help you decide how you’ll  scaffold the project or what text relevant books you’ll need to find. In the primary grades, you have to find ways to break down each skill. Think about the whole picture at first and then what baby steps will lead up to that. For example, my students needed to create a persuasive speech for their businesses for a business fair. We gave them time first to explore persuading through a business that was already made. Then, they brainstormed their own businesses. The great thing about PBL in elementary is that you get the whole day to scaffold through a variety of subjects. You’re supporting this lack of independence through guided reading and writer’s workshop. Think about how each subject can support you! In the times, you’re not doing a lesson, you also allow students to collaborate together through teams, think tanks, and even older peer support. We had third grade editors in one project.

In the primary grades, I think the hardest thing to let go of is the end product. For true student ownership, it’s going to be messy and it’s going to be kid chosen.  It may not look like this perfect science fair – cookie cutter design, especially in second grade. You have to keep in mind that the best part of the learning will come out through their presentation and answers to questions during learning showcases.

A great graphic by Kelly Reseigh on supporting all learners —


Question 3: How do you collaborate with others outside of your classroom to support project work?

Our community has been very willing to support of us in all endeavors. You have to try reaching out to anyone and everyone. You might get a few “no’s” along the way, but you’ll get way more “yes’s” than you think. As a grade level, we’ve organized community member experts like our Mayor, master gardeners, Parks and Rec., and our Chamber of Commerce. They’ve been judges for ending showcases and entry events to challenge our students with the driving questions. The most powerful classroom helpers can be family members and other grade levels. We had a project centered around grandparents and the stories they tell. Grandparents were able to share stories and come back to see how our students rewrote their stories for a Grandparent’s / Elder’s Day. Parents have been great speakers and knowledge experts. We had a parent come in this year to talk about the business they had started up. We just recently began a new gardening project in which students watched an entry event video from our principal about the “eye sore” of a garden outside our windows. She challenged our students to improve the garden so that plants and animals could thrive. The best part about an entry event video was that we could send this home to inspire parents as well. Students, parents, and teachers all now have a cause to work toward. You have to get the word out about the great things you’re doing with a project and then many people will be excited to help. It begins with communication and ends with a community investment.  Check out this Teaching and Learning Guide to help you visualize what scaffolds you’ll need to plan for and who or what can help you.

Question 4: What does Project Based Learning look like in an elementary classroom?

Our grade level sat down this summer and planned for a seamless infusion of our subjects with project based learning. Like the Google Hangout mentioned, it’s still been hard to link up math with such curriculum constraints, but there are ways to connect it sometimes and/or make math PBLs (see my earlier posts). Our grade level started with our curriculum maps for science and social studies. We created driving questions about the concepts that these subjects held. They held bigger concepts of culture, entrepreneurship, community, citizenship, and innovation. Then, we brainstormed what our audiences were for the driving questions. When you think about the audience and end products, this allows you to see how writer’s workshop can support you. For example, our elder’s project was about keeping the past alive and our writing focus was small moments. And, our cultural pbl was supported by a narrative fiction and folktale minilessons. We then found ways that reading could support student research and deeper understandings. Our need to knows lead to “need to reads” as Andrew Miller would say. These “need to reads” can be done as literacy tasks, read alouds, and guided reading. I’ve used guided reading to focus on learning strategies that help us in the project or even on content. Right now, my students are focusing on determining importance of nonfiction stories. We’ve been able to read many books that relate to plants and animals for our schoolyard habitat project. At the end of our guided reading group or even after student research in literacy tasks, I ask my students, “How does reading this text help us with our project?”  Project based learning in an elementary setting will look like your typical classroom, but will be highly connected across subjects. Reading and writing will be supporting some kind of phase or scaffold that your students need.

Question 5: How do you prepare and manage parent involvement in a PBL classroom?

I kind of answered with question 3. The easiest way of keeping parents in the loop is with weekly newsletters. I always send them what projects and what phases we’re in. I ask for help or expertise when needed. These newsletters then allow you to share out when showcases and ending events will be. It’s been a hit at the dinner table with parents. Parents can ask specific questions about school instead of just, “How was school?”


What do you think? How is PBL in elementary going? I’d love to learn from other educators through comments below.

Socrates had it right!

Have you seen this quote on Twitter? 

Posting a learning target before a lesson is like announcing what a gift is before it’s opened. Post a question. Bring curiosity and thinking back to the classroom.

What do you think?

I believe this to be true in my primary classroom. I’ve tested this theory out in several subjects (Math, writing, and reading). I’ve seen students’ eyes light up at a simple question. While I agree that objectives hold us accountable for learning, I must ask… don’t questions, too, inspire our students to hold themselves more accountable? They grow up asking questions. My own husband will fly right to Google Search with his questions. We’re information seeking. Questioning naturally leads to that. Questions can independently linger in a student’s head. Questions guide us to new ideas. They’re the foundation upon creativity and problem solving. I can tell my students what they’re going to learn through an objective OR I can tell my students what we will explore through a question. Exploration takes learning to a new level. Do questions lead to better higher level thinking?

How do you know this? Why do you think that?

My school has been experimenting with project or problem based learning for a year and a half. We’re almost wall-to-wall; meaning we’ve got designs throughout almost all curriculum. Last year was a test run. This year has brought forth many reflections, changes, and revelations! We’re constantly improving the way we plan to bring out our students’ passions and voices. Like a story without a character, a project or problem is nothing without the questioning. I used to think it was all about asking “How can we…” as you’ll see in most of my pbls on this site. I was a strict follower of the project overview. However, I’m now finding I quite like the questions that lead to conversation and debate more. I’d love to be certified as a question expert. Ha! I guess I should have been a philosopher, but then again what teacher is not a philosopher. I’ve found that the deepest projects that I’ve done have been the designs that emphasize the question above all. The projects where the question fits in seamlessly anywhere. What does this question open up in students? My students have been more engaged than ever. While a “how can we…” statement can open up knowledge, I’ve found it’s also not very open-ended. Often, teachers write these driving questions with a hidden agenda to lead our primary students to a specific end product.  Maybe, these types of questions are less scary to us as teachers that feel we need to plan everything (especially with our younger ones). Maybe, we should try to allow these to be more open-ended. My students have responded well if not better  to other questions that create opinions and debate. Most recent favorites; What is Culture? How can you show your thinking? Why is it important for royalty to be worthy? What does it mean to have true beauty? Which character do we learn more from? Is it good or bad to be clever? We’re just dabbling in these few, but I’m trying to allow questions to guide more lessons than I ever have. It’s created great conversation and many hands that pop-up ready to think. I’ve also found that being most intentional about one big question has greatly impacted our learning. One deep empowering question, is packed with so many little questions. Sometimes, I bring these out… but the best part is most times students generate these smaller questions for us.

Can you tell me more? What has inspired this questioning conversation?

A great book(s) that my school is exploring is Essential Questions by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. You may also try Understanding by Design by the same men. These are powerful resources to the questioning that leads to so much more curiosity and critical thinking for our kids. It’s the transfer of this question acquisition that I love. Developing good questioning and realizing how each type of question impacts learning is a necessity.  I’ve just begun to use these educational philosophies in my classroom, but they’re so powerful.

These theories remind me of my second year of teaching with a “gift lesson” for my students; a lesson from Angela Maiers’ book the Passion Driven Classroom. I was on a mission to create a passionate learning environment. A passion for learning creates an improved engagement. Imagine how excited students were to see a pretty wrapped up gift. I told them it represented our learning in this classroom. It wouldn’t be opened until the end of school. It made us wonder. It made us question and predict. Without prompting, guess what they asked me at the end of the school year. “Can we open the gift?” I honestly thought they’d forgotten the lesson.The gift was a hollow box, but we talked about how the gift really represented our learning. Our gift was the knowledge we gained that year which wasn’t something we could fully see until the end of the year. Knowledge is our gift and often our saving grace. Amazingly, I had at least 10 students crying on the last day of school (in second grade) because they didn’t want to see the year end with me. Maybe, just maybe, they were moved by the gift! We must empower this passion for knowledge by focusing on the questions. If our questions are deep and enduring, won’t those guide us to better lessons and even better exploration from our students. Our questions are the gifts to learning. Imagine if we created these questions quite like we develop surprises for our families and friends.

What questions do you still have?

I’ve found that questions ignite the conversation and release prior knowledge from my students. Objectives, while still posted, show us  merely what we will do to explore this question. Which is more important to us the question or the objective? Which one is more important or interesting to the student? What’s best for students? If both are important, what’s the best way to showcase them in a lesson? Which comes first during instruction? What questions have lingered with your students throughout a year, unit, or day? What objectives have? What questions have you asked in your pbls? Which ones have done well? Which ones have not?

Wisdom begins in wonder. – Socrates

True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing. – Socrates