How to Set Up Learning Provocations in the Classroom


Learning provocations are designed to provoke learning and engagement. They might be related to a specific concept or unit of study you are exploring as a class. Alternatively, they can be used to spark curiosity and introduce something new.

Learning provocations are a starting point from which students explore their ideas. They stem from students’ wonders and interests, and are intended to provoke thinking. Provocations can take many forms, such as a photo, book, piece of art, video clip, or an assortment of materials.

We’ve written a few posts about creating learning provocations and setting them up in the classroom. In the post below, we’ll offer some learning provocation ideas, as well as ways that teachers can set them up for the coming school year.

Learning Provocation Ideas:

1. Upcycling Sculptures

Upcycling is the process of repurposing discarded materials and transforming them into something new. By minimizing trash, this practice not only promotes environmental consciousness, but also encourages students to help them see things from new perspectives. Upcycling has several advantages:

  • It promotes creativity by encouraging students to imagine new uses for items that seemingly have no value
  • Upcycling requires students to think critically about the potential applications in upcycled projects by assessing the characteristics of each material and figuring out how to transform them
  • It promotes sustainability by raising awareness about waste on the environment and how our choices have an impact on the world
  • Upcycling encourages teamwork and collaboration between students to brainstorm ideas, pool resources, and contribute their skillset to the project

Using an upcycled sculpture in itself can provide an excellent learning provocation. By showing students a sculpture, model, or structure, they can generate questions about its composition, utility, and significance. Furthermore, using an upcycled sculpture can spark curiosity about the time period in which it was constructed, and promote an investigation into that time period. We’ve compiled a list of artists who use upcycled materials in their art – download the free PDF here.

Designing Upcycled Sculptures to Create Learning Provocations

On the flip side, students can design upcycled sculptures to create their own provocations for their classmates, family, or community. For example, if students are studying the fossil fuel industry and want to show the harm it causes on the environment, they can use upcycled materials to create an interactive display. Another example is to use small old appliances to illustrate the damage caused by electronic device disposal, like the one below, called “Mount Recyclemore”:

For a more nuanced approach to upcycling, consider sharing current stories about how people upcycle things like furniture, clothing, and sentimental items to repurpose them. For example, someone with several pieces of heirloom jewelry might decide to have the metals melted together to create a new, beautiful piece. Encourage students to find ways to upcycle things they may no longer need, or ways the school can do the same.

There are plenty of ideas in this Upcycling Crafts Book Set that includes hundreds of ideas for repurposing old clothes, broken items, and other household knick-knacks into unique pieces.


2. Nature Artwork

Incorporating nature into the classroom can be a powerful way to engage students and spark their curiosity about the natural world. Not only are there several benefits to including nature in your provocations, but students tend to really enjoy interacting with the natural world. Nature provocations also have the power to open the door for developing soft skills like creativity and critical thinking. We’ve written a lot about provocations and invitations, but setting up these learning provocations can be tricky. They can be as basic as cutting out some coloring pages (from this autumn colouring book, for example) and framing them, or setting up a full-blown inquiry table.

Provocations should always start with a question. Think about the provocation’s goal and how learning will occur naturally as a result. Consider what your students already know and what they are interested in learning. Then, consider ways to incorporate those passions into questions that will naturally pique students’ interest. It is crucial to consider the “flow” that students would experience while responding to a provocation. When the inclination strikes, give students a chance to diverge and investigate distinct or smaller subjects. In this post, we’ve provided some suggestions of real-world learning provocations, including the use of wonder walls, observation tables, and treasure chests.

Gathering Items

If you are planning an outside excursion, come prepared with clipboards, reusable bags, and a class iPad or camera to collect evidence of learning. Remember that this kind of evidence doesn’t have to be methodical, but rather anecdotal. While you might need to take note of soft skill development and evidence of thinking and learning, you can also enlist the students to help collect interesting items such as rocks, leaves, twigs, and other objects.

When you return to the classroom, consider anchoring a short lesson around what questions students have about what they found. Challenge students to use their materials in a new way (similar to upcycling) to create artwork or a useful tool. For example, get students to take photos of different types of tree bark, then collate and label the photos for future use, as seen below:

Recommended resources:


3. Historical Storytelling

When preparing for a historical inquiry, it’s important to get students excited about the person, topic, or time period you’re exploring. Helping them to understand that history is rich, complex, and multifaceted, and that not every story has been told is a big part of this. Using photos, letters, and other artifacts can be incredibly helpful when learning about the past. The minor details of people’s life pique students’ curiosity, and having actual, concrete objects on hand makes these narratives more dynamic and active.

To set up a provocation for a historical inquiry, consider gathering a collection of historical artifacts for students to explore. Use a mini easel to prop up a whiteboard with open-ended questions about the artifact that stimulate critical thinking and discussion. (This mini easel and canvas set works perfectly for small table provocations). Encourage students to examine them in terms of their physical characteristics and relevance and write down questions they have about the artifacts.

To add an interesting element to your provocation, present the article as a “time traveler” that has witnessed historical events. This is a perfect opportunity to use the hot seat learning strategy and challenge students to imagine the artifact’s journey through time to develop their questions.

Using the Gallery Walk Strategy

The gallery walk strategy involves students exploring multiple objects, documents, or images that are placed around the room. It is used when you want students to share their work with their peers, examine multiple historical documents, and compare and contrast the items. The objects can be set up in a way that complements your learning goals. For example, at the Maritime Museum in Halifax earlier this year, I saw an old doubloon on display. What was interesting about its display was how its significance was described.

As you can see, the top text (in blue) explains what the item is and where it’s from. To the left is what’s really intriguing. The text in purpose provides an analysis as to why the doubloon is significant to different people – in this case, to a treasure hunter and an archaeologist. Students can replicate this type of display using the provocation items in their inquiries.

Recommended reading: Using Art and Artifacts as Provocations in the Classroom


4. Studying Photographs

Over the years, my students have become pretty good at asking questions that require a good amount of digging. However, it’s still something teachers (myself included) struggle with – what does a good inquiry question look like? And where do they come from? What prompts us to ask good questions? I was again reminded of photos.

Photos are such an interesting provocation because they have endless possibilities for inquiry. For instance, seeing a photo might make us question:

  • How does identity, life experience, and point of view impact our understanding of photos and images?
  • What is the historical context of the photo?
  • Who might have been the intended audience for this photo?
  • What factors should be considered when selecting images to use in a news story?

One of the goals I have for using photos as provocations is to ensure that students can recognize that any image can be interpreted differently depending on a viewer’s point of view, biases, and life experiences. They should also be able to describe some challenges and considerations for selecting photos. Using the See, Think, Wonder strategy is great as it helps students think critically about any visual media.

Step by Step

To guide students through a provocation that utilizes photos, encourage them to look deeply at the photo for some time (2-3 minutes). Get them to write down what they observe – the subject, negative space, colours, textures, etc. Encourage them to simply observe, and to not analyze what they’re seeing or make guesses about the intentions of the photo. Then, get them to write down questions they have about the photo that would help them understand the context.

Next, provide some context about the photo and then put the onus back on students to delve deeper. What do they think the photographer or artist was trying to communicate through the photo? Who might have been the intended audience? Once students have provided some answers, encourage them to discuss their ideas with their classmates. For many students, this process is somewhat unfamiliar. After all, we’re programmed to want access to the right answers quickly. However, taking the time to extend the process of analyzing visual media helps students to more deeply understand what they’re seeing. Additionally, it helps them to develop the critical thinking skills they need to respond more thoughtfully in the future.

Provocation Photos:

Suggested Resources:


Final Thoughts

Creating learning provocations has the potential to spark curiosity and wonder in students of all ages. Utilizing sculptures, artwork, photographs, and tangible objects are excellent ways to start an inquiry project and garner student interest. The goal of a provocation is to provoke thinking, curiosity, and learning. What learning provocations have you used in your classroom? Leave your comments below!

Cover image by Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash

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