How Do We Know What We Know?

December 14, 2018


By Jenny Armstrong, Middle School Head Teacher; John Denton, Middle School Educational Technology Integrator; and Finlay Logan, Middle School Head Teacher

How do we know what we know? What tools can we use to learn about the world around us? Where and how do we get the resources that we need? What must individuals do to build community? These are some of the big questions that sixth graders are grappling with in science, history, and current events classes this school year. We have been working together to create an inquiry-based, thematically cohesive, and globally relevant curriculum. Our goal is to link the curricula through shared guiding questions that will drive students’ units of study in each class. A question-driven curriculum helps students to see the relevance of their academic studies in each class, while showing them how they can use what they learn in school to improve their world.

Last summer we worked together to examine our existing curricula and identify areas of thematic and conceptual overlap. Then we developed new units that adhered more closely to the shared learning goal. We wanted to begin the year by engaging students in the authentic work of professionals in our respective disciplines. Drawing on lessons we had previously taught, we realigned our first units so that they answered the big question “What tools can we use to learn about the world around us?”

As part of our preparation for this work last summer we created three units, one for each trimester. The first unit, entitled “Prove it!” is currently underway and teaches students to use evidence to support their conclusions. The second unit will be called “Material World” and will focus on the important resources of land and water. The third unit, “Making a Difference,” will get students thinking about communities past and present and how individuals can change their world for the better. These unit topics were mindfully selected as they are applicable to all three subject areas and lend themselves to rich and engaging learning activities.

Students have been performing the work of scientists by learning about and practicing the scientific method and exploring standardized measurement in the metric system. They have conducted experiments, such as determining the bounciest type of ball. They also made boats from aluminum foil and compared the volume of water the boat could hold to the mass of the boat while maintaining buoyancy in order to discover density. In history class, students have learned how historians use tools like fossils and artifacts to understand human life long ago. They have applied their forensic skills to identify replica bones and learned how one artifact, the Rosetta Stone, cracked the code of Egyptian writing. In current events, students have become informed citizens by learning about the three tiers of government and are developing media literacy skills. They have learned about current topics and distinguishing news from advertisements, entertainment, and editorials. Students categorized sources and learned how to express their views on the news through Socratic Seminars. It has been amazing to hear the connections students make between different subjects!

Part of our interest in exploring this project was to reexamine the sixth grade curriculum and ensure that it supports the school’s mission toward pursuing justice, equity, and global sustainability. One of the things that excites us most about this new curriculum is how it opens the door for us to align our work more closely with the school’s mission by including material from a range of world cultures and current issues. In history, for example, rather than studying one civilization at a time, approaching history thematically means we are able to teach about multiple times and peoples during the same unit. A single unit on water could include case studies about Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China in history class, case studies of water crises in the United States and other parts of the world in current events class, and ocean health in science class. In all three classes, this deep learning could raise discussions of equity, justice, and civic responsibility.

Through our collaboration, we learned that asking the right question is essential but surprisingly challenging. Most of our time was spent devising the right questions so that they would be open-ended yet focused and meaningful for students. We are excited to see the results of our work as the year unfolds, and we are very grateful to the Parents Association for this opportunity.

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