3 Using open-ended activities

As students work on activities and push and pull objects along, they are building up their own vocabulary of words to describe what they experience. By using different kinds of questions – particularly more open-ended questions – you will give the students time and space to think and share their ideas with their peers.

Together they are constructing understanding based on their individual experiences and shared knowledge. Some of their ideas may not be well-formed, but by working with others to solve problems posed by open-ended questions, they are able to discuss their ideas and think about what they thought they knew and how accurate that was. Together they can begin to adjust their ideas to fit the accepted science about what a force is and what forces do.

The case study below shows how one teacher uses open-ended questions to explore what her students know about forces.

Case Study 2: A set of open-ended activities

Mrs Das is working on Chapter 11 of the science textbook, exploring with her Class VIII students what they know about how things move and whether they are able to describe what a force is. She decides to use a series of small activities that her class can do to explore their ideas before she even uses the textbook with her students.

I planned to use four simple activities, because they did not involve much equipment for me to gather together. This ‘circus’ of activities would introduce my class to the real experience of forces at work, from which I could draw out their current understanding of forces. I told the students to do what it said at each ‘station’ and then try to explain what was happening by answering the question, ‘What is happening and why?’

I asked them to work in their normal pairs. I had paired less confident and less able students with more confident students a few days earlier and reminded them all to listen and support each other as they tried to explain what was happening. I told them that there could be up to two pairs at a station at any one time, as I have three sets of each activity to cater for my class of 48. Providing enough resources for my class is difficult and this way of organising the students was suggested by a colleague who also has a large class. She said it gave them a chance to talk and share their ideas.

I gave each pair five minutes to do one task, answer the question(s) and write down their thoughts to share with the class later. I reminded them to keep their voices down so they did not disturb the other classes.

The activities were as follows:

  • Push the book along the desk in as many ways as you can.
  • Roll the ball down the slope. Then roll two different balls and watch what happens.
  • Drop a flat piece of paper from waist height. Then drop a screwed-up piece of paper from the same height. Then try them both from a greater height.
  • Roll the ball across the first surface. Then roll it across the second surface.

Every five minutes I clapped my hands and asked the pairs to move to the next activity. After 20 minutes or so they had done all the tasks. At one point I had to stop them because the noise became too loud. I was really pleased that the students were so interested and excited at what they were doing, but I did not want to disturb other classes. As they worked, I moved around the class and listened to their discussions and ideas, and asked the occasional questions such as ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘What would happen if you …?’ to help students develop their ideas about what they thought was happening.

After they had done all four activities, I asked the pairs to form groups of four, take a few minutes to look at their answers and write one or two statements that they thought were true about what they had found out about forces.

Next I asked them to share their ideas. I wanted to give everybody a chance to offer feedback, so I would only take one answer at a time from a group of four and then recorded their answers on the blackboard. By the end of the lesson the students had agreed that a force is a push or pull that can be altered in different ways. I was pleased, because this allowed me to move onto looking at ways to change the impact of forces and ways of measuring forces using Newtons.

Pause for thought

Mrs Das’s lesson used very simple materials and took little preparation. You may not be able to do a ‘circus’ of activities, but think how you could make use of more open-ended activities in your science lessons. If you have a large class, maybe you could do the practical in two halves, with one half doing their own work from their textbook while you work with the others; then you swap over next lesson. Another way to help students do the same activity of answering the open-ended questions is to collect some pictures from newspapers, like the photo Mrs Sharma used to enable the groups to talk about their ideas.

To help students understand the theoretical ideas about forces more deeply, it is important that they have experiences that allow them to feel the force as it impacts on objects and to think about what is happening. Your use of challenging questions will help them think more deeply.

Activity 3: An open-ended activity/investigation

For this activity, you need to think about the following questions and then plan your lesson before you do the activity with your students.

What aspect of forces do you want the students to learn about? You may want them to do something quite simple, such as exploring the impact of different pushes or pulls, or explore how you can use force to change direction. Next you need to think about the following questions and actions that you need to do as you plan your lesson:

  • How can you make this a practical session without using too many resources?
  • What open-ended question(s) do you want the students to think about and try to answer in relation to the activities?
  • How will you introduce the lesson?
  • Will you use just one activity or more?
  • If you have limited resources or space, maybe some of the class could do other work whilst the others test their ideas and then swap over.
  • How will you help the students as they work? What kind of questions will help and provoke their thinking? Examples include ‘What will happen if …?’, ‘Why do you think that happened?’, ‘Does it always happen?’ and ‘How can you change the outcome?’ You will also need to think about how you will support those who need extra support to understand.
  • Gather and prepare all the resources that you need.

Teach the lesson and practise using more open-ended questions as you go round the groups.

After the lesson, reflect on what went well in the lesson and why you think this was so. This will help you use the strategy again with more effect.

Pause for thought

The following questions may help you think over what happened:

  • What did not go quite as you expected or would have liked? Why not? How can you make this better next time?
  • How well did you do asking more open-ended questions? Did it encourage the students to think more?
  • Were the students more motivated and involved in the lesson, and if so, how?

Students’ learning naturally loops through a cycle of wonder, exploration, discovery, reflection and more wonder, especially when they are given opportunities to explore practically and talk about their ideas about such a topic as forces. Such activity leads them on to increasingly complex knowledge and sophisticated thinking. The power of open-ended questions comes from the way these questions tap into the natural curiosity, inviting students to pursue how the world works. Resource 2, ‘Talk for learning’ – particularly the sections labelled ‘Why talk for learning is important’ and ‘Planning talk for learning activities in the classroom’ – will help you to understand better the importance of talk for thinking.

Video: Talk for learning

Using open-ended questions shows students that their teachers respect them and trust them to have good ideas, think for themselves and contribute in valuable ways. The resulting sense of autonomy, belonging and competence gives them confidence as learners.