4 Simple Steps for Creating Exciting and Impactful Provocations


Last year, we wrote a post all about creating learning provocations that get students excited in the classroom. In it, we described the purpose of provocations and included some helpful tips for preparing a provocation for students. We also included some guidelines for creating provocations that spark student interest and curiosity. It is important that your provocations are intentional and serve a purpose in your classroom or home learning space. Below are some tips and ideas for creating exciting and meaningful experiences for your students!


What are provocations?

Provocations are open-ended invitations to explore, create, and stimulate ideas. They don’t necessarily have a specific outcome; rather, they are intended to evoke curiosity and imagination in students. Provocations are intended to provoke a response from students – a question, a wonder, a thought, or a feeling of curiosity. They are designed to spark excitement and wonder in students and get them thinking about what’s next.

There are many types of provocations and ways to open students’ minds up to the learning that lies ahead. The purpose is not to direct students to an intended outcome, but rather to nudge them forward into their own journey of discovery. While there is no exact template for a specific provocation, there are a few interesting examples that teachers can pull inspiration and ideas from. 

Considerations

There are a few things to consider when planning or setting up a provocation. First, consider the grade you’re teaching. What works for a class of kindergarten students might not work well for a fifth grade class. Second, your provocations also depend on the types of materials and the amount of space you have available, so work with what you have. Finally, provocations don’t need to be flashy or extravagant; they just need to serve a purpose.

1. Set an Intention

Ask yourself what the purpose of your provocation is – is it to encourage student exploration? Is it to spark wonder and excitement about a topic or unit of study? Or are you intending for your provocation to ignite action? Try to think longer-term as well – how will natural learning follow? Other questions to consider include:

  • How is this provocation relevant to students?
  • What do students enjoy learning about, and what are they curious about?
  • How does the provocation fit in with my topic or unit plan?
  • What is the essential or driving question?
  • What inspires them to tune-in and switch on?

Some intentions might be related to a specific concept or unit of study you are exploring as a class. For example, if you are studying social justice movements, your intention might be to help students better understand social justice issues. Another inquiry project might include students exploring art in their neighbourhoods, in which case, propping up some beautiful photos or paintings of local areas might inspire them. In this activity, students explored the local area and built models from recycled materials.

Regardless of the activity, it is always helpful to set an intention, and have a good idea of what you want your students to get out of the provocation. Once you have this figured out, it’s time to move onto the creation stage.


2. Gather Materials

This is the stage where educators plan and create their provocations. Contrary to popular belief, provocations do not need to cost a ton of money, nor do they require hours and hours of prep work. A provocation can be as simple as a set of photos and images, or as elaborate as a full-blown floral painting studio, complete with stamps, stickers, maps, and other elements. There is ample room for creativity and imagination! Many provocations include a sampling of questions to guide students through their discoveries, usually written on dry-erase boards or chalkboards for re-use later on. In my own classroom, the more unique the materials, the more engaged my students have been. For example, using oddly-shaped rocks or natural elements has evoked far more questions than a simple dandelion. 

Here are some suggested materials for your provocation table:

  • Nature-based elements
    • Flowers or parts of flowers
    • Rocks
    • Seashells
    • Twigs and small logs
    • Leaves
  • Household items
    • Recycled materials
    • Paper and cardboard
    • Empty plastic containers
    • Newspapers
    • Loose parts (string, rubber bands, etc)
  • Artistic objects
    • Paints, brushes, and water
    • Paper and newsprint
    • Watercolours and pastels
    • Pencils, crayons, and charcoal
    • Washi tape, stickers, or glitter
  • Conceptual materials
    • Maps and atlases
    • Magnets and science-related objects
    • Photo albums or brochures
    • Old electronic bits (age-appropriate)
    • Hooks, small boxes, trinkets, etc.

In addition to some of the objects listed above, books are a great addition to a provocation table. If students want to learn more, or research a question or idea, having books and paper nearby makes it easy for them to jot down their questions and find out more information. Adding photos (especially at artsy or “maker” provocation tables) helps show students what creative possibilities exist. For example, including a book about robots and some photos of upcycled sculptures, like the one below, can spark new ideas for creations.


3. Tie your provocations to the curriculum

Ensure that your provocation and subsequent activities not only have relevance to students, but that they relate to the curriculum objectives. Make sure that you are threading standards into your provocation and follow-up learning activities. Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Which areas of the curriculum will my provocations fit into?
  • How can my provocation allow for multiple entry points?
  • What learning goals would apply to my provocation?
  • How will students uncover the curriculum through questions and exploration?

Be sure to look for materials that allow students to naturally make connections to ideas and goals in the curriculum. For example, choose loose parts to include in your provocation (or on your provocation table) that lend themselves to students achieving a curriculum expectation. For instance, laying out wooden animal figures and a habitat diorama might encourage students to “investigate the interdependence of plants and animals within specific habitats and communities”, as per the grade 4 Science and Technology curriculum objective.


4. Create the space

Creating provocations can be such a fun process. Arranging loose parts, labeling items, setting up stations, and decorating the surrounding area are all fun ways to prepare your provocations for students to explore. There are a few different ways to create an inviting and inspiring area for students, whether you teach in a classroom or homeschool:

Inquiry Tables

There are so many beautiful, thoughtful, and unique examples of inquiry/observation tables circulating on sites like Pinterest and Instagram. These are designated areas where students explore materials chosen by their teacher that are related to their topic or inquiry.

At these tables, students construct, fiddle, observe, and create impressions of their wonderings using the available materials. Propping up a book or photo related to the topic helps visual learners explore their topic through another lens. Other complementary materials to supplement any observation table include magnifying glasses, clipboards and paper for observations and note-taking or sketching, picture books, and possibly an iPad or camera for students to use to take photos of their learning.

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Adding a “wonder window” nearby adds another element to the excitement of an observation table. Students can observe, sketch and write what they see outside. Place related books or photographs to a natural “next step” for students to continue their learning. Some examples of curriculum objectives to consider at observation tables include:

  • selects and safely uses tools and equipment to observe and measure
  • describes what was done and what was observed
  • observe and compare the physical characteristics of a variety of animals, including insects, using student-generated questions and a variety of methods and resources
  • observe and compare the parts of a variety of plants
  • use scientific inquiry/experimentation skills to investigate changes of state and changes in matter
  • use a microscope correctly and safely to find and observe components of plant and animal cell

Upcycling Spaces

At the beginning of a new inquiry topic or question, bring in an old box filled with interesting materials such as photos, natural objects, a letter, postcards, scrapbooks, an unknown item, or a piece of art. These can be transformed into build centres or STEM carts. For example, in my old classroom I gathered things like empty bottles, flattened cardboard pieces, pipe cleaners, clay, popsicle sticks, wooden dowels, and other craft items and organized them into sections on a cart that students could access during their “build” periods. They also had access to hot glue guns, crafting scissors, and other materials that they could be trusted. During their free build time, they create unique art pieces that we would then display all over the classroom.

These loose parts can also serve as connections between students and the curriculum. Some connections include:

  • use a variety of materials, tools, and techniques to respond to and/or determine solutions for a variety of design challenges
  • use elements of design in art works to communicate ideas, messages, and personal understandings
  • create two- and three-dimensional works of art that express feelings and ideas inspired by their interests and experiences
  • create art works, using a variety of traditional forms and current media technologies, that express feelings, ideas, and issues, including opposing points of view

Wonder Walls

Wonder Walls are fun spaces in classrooms that are devoted to student displays of work, questions they have, and things they are curious about. These spaces are dedicated to their thoughts and wonderings, and are great for students who need to write their ideas down so they don’t forget them!

It is important to begin your wonder wall early in the year and it is a great idea to keep it up until the end of the year so students can see the progression of their thoughts and ideas. Adding spaces where students can answer questions, respond to a riddle, or stick photos or pieces of work on are powerful ways to honour each others’ ongoing learning. Wonder walls are also a great way to empower student voice and choice, and make the classroom feel warm, personal, and safe.

Final Thoughts

Every learning space is different, and every provocation will be unique. The most important things to consider are that: (1) you have set an intention for the provocation area, (2) you have gathered relevant, inspiring, and fun materials to include in your provocation space, (3) that you have tied your objectives for the provocation to the curriculum, and (4) that you have created a space that is inspiring, welcoming, and engaging for students using multiple entry points.

Creating provocations and learning spaces might seem daunting or overwhelming at first; I promise you, once you set a goal, link some objectives, and find some fun materials, the fun and learning will come naturally.

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