How to Create Learning Provocations That Get Students Excited

provocation wonder wall


What is a provocation?

You’ve likely heard the term “provocation” used with inquiry-based learning. Provocations are intended to provoke a response from students – a question, a wonder, a thought, a feeling of curiosity – any of these signs of engagement are what provocations seek to evoke. 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. 

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.


Some helpful tips for preparing a provocation:


Begin with a question in mind

What is the purpose of your provocation? How will natural learning follow? What is your essential question, and what do your students want to know? Planning these things out ahead of time will ensure that you get the most out of your provocation.

Consider student interest

What types of things do your students enjoy learning about? Are there specific hobbies you could incorporate? What activities do they naturally lean into?

Decide how much control students will have

Your provocation should largely be left for students to explore with minimal intervention from you. When students are engaged and interested in what they’re doing they tend to get more out of the lesson. Let the students guide themselves. Chances are they’ll surprise you!

Consider the flow

Where are students likely to begin? What questions might they have? Try to plan the natural progression that will happen as students work through their questions and wonderings. Provide opportunities for them to branch off and explore separate interests when the inkling arises.

Tie the provocation into the curriculum

Ensure that your provocation and subsequent activities not only have relevance to students, but also that they relate to the curriculum you’re trying to teach. Make sure that you are threading standards into your provocation and follow-up learning activities.


Some examples of fun, authentic provocations:


Observation Tables

There are so many beautiful, thoughtful, and unique examples of observation tables circulating on sites like Pinterest and Instagram. These are designated areas where students have a chance to explore materials related to their topic or inquiry. Not only can these objects and materials can be hand-selected by teachers from resources at their school or from home, but they can also be things that students have brought in to share with others.

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.

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.

Treasure Boxes

Another mysterious and fun addition to have in the inquiry classroom is a treasure box or chest. 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 are commonly referred to as “loose parts” and are a great way to inspire creativity, curiosity, and wonder. Some other examples of loose parts include things like jewels, straws, corks, cardboard scraps, beads, popsicle sticks, and anything else that students can fiddle with and explore.

You can also use treasure boxes by transforming them 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.

Furthermore, these loose parts can also serve as connections between topics and students. For example, upon pulling out an old letter from a treasure box, a student might remember that his grandfather wrote letters to his grandmother during the war. The student might want to bring in some of those letters to share with the class, and perhaps create a scrapbook of letters and photos or a “war wall” to share their learning.

Wonder Walls

A wonder wall about our Dinosaurs topic

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.



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