Sowing seeds

Stimulating thought is never easy. Neil Rutledge uses mystery objects.

We are all aware of how important open questioning is in the classroom, but like you perhaps, I have found that in a busy classroom it is all too easy to lapse from the ideal and use only closed questions. Faced with these pressures I have tried to come up with easy-to-manage activities to keep me on the right track with my questioning. Mystery objects is one of my favourites. It is fun, expands learning and helps myself and the children go beyond narrow, summative questions and answers.

The basic idea of the activity is quite simple. It involves a group of children being given a mysterious object and being asked, through observation and discussion, to find out as much about the object as they can. Choice of object is important and I have found a key factor to be the context of the learning. Outcomes will be much improved if the activity is firmly set within a context that the children are already learning about.

Some examples I have used include:

* In a "plants" topic, giving the children various unfamiliar fruits or seeds and asking them to predict from them as much as they can about the plant's life cycle.

* In a "living things and life processes" topic, presenting a selection of animal skulls and asking the children to predict as much as possible about the animal from them.

* In a "cross-curricular materials and their propertieshistory" topic with a local museum, giving the children a selection of Roman artefacts and asking them to predict what they were, how they were made and who might have used them.

I have also come to realise that if the children have not undertaken such work before, they will need some sort of scaffolding to help them gain the most from the activity. I use two strategies.

First, I introduce the activity as a whole-class exercise. This lets me model and introduce appropriate procedures. Then I usually give the children a series of prompt questions to get them started and to guide their own observation and questioning. The knack is then to highlight for the children how questions help them to learn about the objects by allowing them to test their ideas about the object.

For example, I regularly present them with desiccated seeds of wild oats, Avena fatua. These are usually confidently identified as seeds, but their mystifying gyrations after being lightly sprayed with water tend to provoke amazement. Here is an example where a closed question such as "Why do the seeds do that?" is likely to bewilder the children.

However, I have discovered that a carefully considered series of open questions will usually result in children being able to work out exactly what goes on and why. I focus the children on observing what is happening, then move them to suggest how this might happen and why it might happen.

This transcript illustrates the principles, see box.

I didn't tell the child anything, but the careful questioning encouraged his or her own investigating skills and, despite never having encountered the seeds before, he or she was able to work out what and why it happened.

A similar process of questioning led to the correct conclusion that in the wild, rain-induced movement helps the seed "plant itself" by wedging into cracks in the ground.

I have found that the regular use of such activities sharpens my questioning and leads to the children being better able to question facts that have helped me enhance learning outcomes across the curriculum. Have a go!

For more information see Issue 83 of Primary Science Review, the primary science journal of the Association for Science Education:

Neil Rutledge lectures on initial teacher education courses at St Martin's College in Carlisle. Email:


Teacher: What are the seeds doing?

Child: They're moving.

Teacher: How are they moving?

Child: They're spinning around.

Teacher: How do you think they might be able to move?

Child: It must be to do with the water.

Teacher: What makes you think that?

Child: They didn't move before they were sprayed and they've changed colour. They're soaking it up.

Teacher: What is the evidence for that idea?

Child: Yeah! There's less water now in the dish.

Teacher: So, how do think soaking up water enables the seed to move?

Child: I don't know.

Teacher: Yes! It's pretty mysterious. What sort of things happen to objects when they soak up water?

Child: They get wet!

Teacher: Yes! And what else?

Child: They expand! The twisty bits expand and that pushes it round on the thing sticking out!

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