When A Provocation Doesn’t Go As Planned

I was so excited to go back to school today, and even more eager to share this provocation with the students.


I really thought that they would begin to see the impact that weather can have on structures, and why choosing certain materials, matter. And so, I was totally surprised this morning when the students thought that the problem was that the house caught on fire. I tried playing a game of Challenge with them (thanks to my previous vice principal, Kristi, for the “game” that I absolutely love) to help them identify problems with their theory, but the students had answers for everything. In the end, they almost had me convinced that a fire was to blame. 🙂

Now lies the problem of what to do. Does it matter that the provocation did not lead to the thinking that I anticipated? Can I still use their thinking of a fire to help them see the benefits in choosing certain materials for structures over other ones? I’m thinking that this could work, and then I could also introduce the problem of the weather, and have them extend their thinking with this new idea. What do you think of this plan? What do you do when your provocations provoke different ideas than you thought? Maybe this is how students direct inquiry learning even when we attempt to lead them. I would love to hear about your experiences!


12 thoughts on “When A Provocation Doesn’t Go As Planned

  1. I think that’s the difference between direct teaching and a provocation: you know what the finish line looks like in direct teaching. With a provocation, you can anticipate it but you are guessing at student schema and learning through student-shared discussion. I wonder why they were so drawn to the fire idea? Perhaps that is the only change influence they have seen on large matter. If that is their experience, perhaps you need to set aside this provocation for now and then provide opportunities to try out weather influencing matter (hair dryer/ watering can/ice cubes effecting structures made of paper, lego, cardboard etc). Build their schema and then see if it is the right time to go back to your previous provocation.
    What do you think?

    • Thanks for the comment, Kristi! I think that their schema was definitely a large part of the reason that they thought of a “fire.” The other problem was that I painted the house brown and black. I wanted them to think about bricks. Instead they saw a brown house that was “scorched” by the fire. As they were telling me their thinking, I could totally understand why they saw things the way that they did. (Apparently my artistic skills leave a bit to be desired … 🙂 )

      Tomorrow, we’re going to explore water a little bit more, and we’re moving more towards the impact of liquids and air on structures. I actually plan on investigating these topics starting this week. Maybe as the students see, learn, and investigate more, their thinking about the provocation will change. Thanks Kristi! As a bonus, it did get the students very interested in writing, and they were sounding out many words as they documented what they saw. Even one of my most reluctant writers was eager to write about his observations. At lunch today, I heard one student tell another one to be “careful with his crumbs” because he didn’t want to “contaminate the scene.” 🙂 It made me chuckle!

      I’ll be curious to see the impact that their new learning might have on their old ideas. I’ll keep you posted! Thanks, as always, for giving me more to think about!

  2. Is there a way to tie in their ideas about the fire with the ideas about structures? Does the structure of a building reduce or increase its consumption by fire? (Ooooh, I’d be excited to see scenarios played out with THAT inquiry! The fire department might not be as thrilled.)

    • Thanks for the idea, Diana! This may be something that we can tie in. I think that the choice of building materials may also play a role in the likelihood of a building catching fire. The students may wish to investigate this more, and it would connect to the overall Science expectation relating to materials and structure design. And, as Kristi suggested in her comment, possibly as I build schema, their ideas about this provocation will change. I’ll be curious to see what happens.


  3. Aviva, I was going to say the exact thing as Kristi. Inquiry is a path that can lead you anywhere. All you can do is do your best to anticipate and think about all possible solutions. I go back to a fraction question I asked my students once about pizza ( this was early in my math career before I realized that circles are not the best for fractions) thats not the point, the point was that instead of just cutting the pizza up they asked me is it a small, medium or large. I asked why? and they proceeded to tell me the amount of slices for each pizza. To them pizza comes from a store and delivered not made and then cut up. We never know what schema they have or what previous experiences may impact their learning.

    What if you actually did a recreation of a structure being affected by water. You can make a simple wave machine in a bucket. Or there are short youtube clips of Tsunamis and hurricanes. I always like the challenge of using only paper and tape build the tallest structure that can withstand the force of my breathe, and a fan. This may help them see your provocation more.

    Don’t be discouraged all learning is good learning.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jonathan, and thanks for sharing some of your experiences too. I’m hoping that some of the different experiments/challenges I have this week will help build new schema. A wave machine could work as well (for the students to actually see the weather in action). I love the paper structure idea. I think I’m going to bring in newspapers (I have a ton) and the students can use tape with them. Then after the wind test, I’m going to ask what would happen if we added water. Then maybe the students will see why materials matter …

      Thank you, as always, for giving me more to think about and offering support along the way!


  4. I’m wondering if it might be an idea to tackle the “matter” concepts now and then trail back to different structures. I’m looking at the curriculum document (p.47) at the big ideas about properties of different materials, and choice of materials for different objects and structures. This way, you could actually build from your students’ understanding that buildings burn down, and some investigation into different construction materials and their properties may lead to a broader understanding of the issues involved in designing everyday structures, including their long term environmental impact. Looking forward to seeing how it all develops.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ruth! Surprisingly, this matter concept is actually the big idea that I’m starting with, and I was hoping that this provocation would help get students thinking about it. I even had a house made of sticks that was partially destroyed by the “wind and water,” and I wanted them to see the difference in destruction vs. with the brick house. The problem was that they thought that the brick house caught on fire, and they made sense of every other problem based on this initial assumption. They even saw the sticks, as just a pile of them and not as a destroyed house.

      This week, we are doing experiments that align with this overall expectation, and I’m hoping that as Kristi suggested, this will help build new schema. Jonathan’s suggestion could work too. Thanks for your help as well. I was very surprised by what the students thought, and now it’s time to maybe rethink some of my approach. I guess that’s what teaching is all about … 🙂


  5. Aviva,
    I though your provocation was great. As you had planned to direct students to effect of weather on the structure, maybe a weather element such as a blowing fan/ use of a watering can would have helped in creating the scenario to direct their thought. When I experience digression from main thought in my class, I do take up the discussion about the topic of student’s current interest ,but I direct students by turning their thinking around to the main topic.

    • Thanks for the ideas, Sandhya! I added water to the provocation, but I think students saw that in conjunction with the fire. I’m hoping that as the students learn more about the elements of wind and water, their thinking about this provocation changes. I’d like to direct them to these new ideas, while also giving them the opportunity to uncover them on their own. It may be a fine balance. 🙂


  6. Another point, emphasize the discipline thinking that you want your students to use. They can apply scientific principles that they are learning to all kinds of content.

    • Thanks for the idea, Byron! Can you give me an example here? I know what you mean when you emphasize Disciplines of Thinking in Social Studies. What did you have in mind for Science? I guess that I’m trying to figure out what this looks like in Grade 1.


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