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Time for exploration and tinkering

Gioia Morasch, PYP Coordinator, Frankfurt International School, Germany

In this article you will read about how the first grade team has made changes each year to a unit of inquiry under the transdisciplinary theme “How the world works”, based on the developmental level, interests and inquiries of students.

The central idea has evolved into: “The design of a structure depends on the environment and available materials and technology“.

The key concepts that drive this unit are form, function and connection with the related concepts of structure, strength and stability.

Students inquire into:

  • the reasons why there are different structures in the world
  • the shapes and techniques that make stable structures
  • how the choice of materials impacts design

When planning, we consider the concepts we want our students to understand and articulate them into guiding questions they will be presented with throughout the course of the unit.

We extensively deliberate on assessment as it provides a focus for the learning and inquiry.

The unit is kicked off with introducing students to new vocabulary and ideas they will soon be exposed to – in their home and family languages. These sessions, heavily supported by parents, provide students with a preview of what’s to come and facilitates the assimilation of new concepts and vocabulary, enabling them to make meaningful connections.

The students were tasked with building a stable 30cm tall structure using marshmallows and toothpicks, communicating in their assigned group language as they worked. This supported unit understandings with pertinent vocabulary including stability, shape, foundation and structure.

Students building the challenge while communicating in their native languages.

Throughout the unit, students visited our Makerspace to explore materials and learn binding techniques. They were encouraged to use our school’s Design Cycle (see below) and to continually evaluate and reflect on their work as they went along.

Teachers observed students frequently referring to the design cycle, which helped them to articulate their thinking and the application of skills learned from other building challenges.

Through the use of the Makerspace, learners were able to explore and tinker with many concepts and ideas around planning and creating structures.

Teachers in each class assigned various building/STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) challenges to encourage learners to come up with solutions to problems that required thinking, planning and constructing.

Here, one teacher laid out a “river” in the middle of the room and asked students to create a structure that could safely transport toy cars to the either side, using only materials provided.

In this classroom, children were tasked with creating a city by building towers and bridges for a little doll to fit inside. The image below shows how one student designed an elevator with a cup and used the pulley system as a way of lifting the doll to various levels.

For our summative assessment, students planned and constructed a model of a structure to serve a particular purpose, analyzing and making improvements as they went along. To ensure students had voice and choice, they created a blueprint using the available materials within the classroom and our Makerspace.

To complete the assessment, students took a picture of their blueprint and final structure. Using Seesaw, they recorded their reflections on the process and challenges they faced, revealing their understanding of the central idea.

Learners were asked to consider the following questions:

  • Did the end result match up with what was planned?
  • Did it end up serving the purpose originally envisioned? Why/why not?
  • How many times did you have to go back to plan and make revisions? Why/why not?

There were numerous transdisciplinary links made through this unit of inquiry. In shape and space, particular outcomes such as identifying and applying the terms “flat and curved surfaces” for describing three-dimensional shapes used to build structures were reached. Through building engagements, students learned the importance of arches, columns and foundations on supporting weight.

In arts, learners made connections to the works and architecture of Gaudi and learned how to use flexible sticks to create structures using various materials to build stable, free-standing structures.

Our art teacher incorporated architecture influenced by Gaudi throughout and students created a “city” as a result of this inspiration.

Though this unit sounds adequately mapped out, when reflecting on it, teachers determined that the students needed more time to tinker with materials and draw connections from their learning. The learning students did in the Makerspace took considerably longer than originally planned and teachers noted that just when students would become immersed, it was normally time to leave the space. Authentic investigation of the deeper connections and transferable learning could did not unfold on the level that such an articulated, developmentally-appropriate unit of inquiry for first grade learners has the potential to offer.

We are keen to continue making amendments to this unit next year, based on our ongoing reflections and drive to optimize student learning that leads to the kind of transferable understanding that comes from the latitude of not only diving in but staying in the exploration phase a little longer.

Students realized the importance of available materials and the way that structures are built and their influence in the world. They wanted to explore building for different purposes and this was essential for them to make the connections they did to the central idea. Some students began to note that every structure in their environment is there for a purpose. They understood the idea that not all things planned turn out as intended and were presented with the life-skill of returning to the drawing board.

The question is, did they have enough time and opportunity to do so fully?


Makerspace website:
Seesaw website:

Gioia Morasch is a PYP Coordinator at the Frankfurt International School in Germany. She has been a PYP educator for 13 years and has a Master’s Degree in Human Development and Child Psychology from the University of Toronto, Canada. Gioia enjoys pushing boundaries and questioning the value of many things related to educational practice. She collaborates and works with educators to help students develop their learning potential through visible thinking and concept-based teaching practices with the aim of nurturing citizens capable of creating a peaceful and productive world. Gioia is also an IB Workshop Leader and School Visit Team Member. You can follow her on Twitter @gioia_morasch.



2 Responses to Time for exploration and tinkering

  1. Ricardo Domínguez 12 June 2018 at 3:42 pm #

    Great sharing! Congratulations on your work.

  2. Mohamed Gomaa 14 June 2018 at 10:26 am #

    Great job . Do you have a subject coordinator working with yourself or not ?

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