Provocation vs Invitation: What is the Difference?


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You might have heard the terms provocation and invitation with regards to inquiry learning. Here is the main difference between the two:

An invitation is something that encourages students to explore a concept. A provocation is something that provokes action and stimulates thinking. Both are used in the inquiry classroom to evoke curiosity and encourage play.

Invitations and provocations can be seen in all classrooms, but they are incredibly popular in kindergarten and early elementary classrooms. However, they can be used with students of all ages to introduce new topics and concepts. Now that the difference is clear, let’s look into how these work in the classroom.


What does an invitation look like?

When starting a new inquiry topic, using an invitation is a great way to engage students. This doesn’t need to look like an elaborate, highly-structured environment. Thoughtfully arranging furniture, laying out materials and loose parts, and creating a comfortable space for students to explore is a great place to start. Simply inviting students to explore is often enough to provoke their curiosities and get them engaged in new material.

Image courtesy of wild.little.whimsy

What does a provocation look like?

Provocations play a big role in inquiry learning. Not only do they provide a stimulus to provoke thought and ideas, but they also give students opportunities to use their imagination without teacher interference. Provocations encourage creativity, design thinking, and independence. In addition, there are no specific learning goals, so students have the freedom to develop their own ideas and foster a sense of ownership. We’ve written a complete guide to setting up impactful provocations if you need some inspiration in your classroom! 

Image courtesy of mummy_and_mason

How do I create invitations?

There are no set rules about invitations. Some teachers design invitations to stimulate interest, while others create them in response to student interests. While they can be used for both purposes, I have found that a mix of both generally works well to both deepen existing interests and cultivate intrigue for new interests. For example, if students are interested in Minecraft, you can place loose blocks on a table and display images of Minecraft designs on a board. In addition, hang blueprints of other structures on the board as well and lay out recycled materials to invite students to build using a new material.

The idea with an invitation is that the teacher invites students to think about the new concept and explore it on their terms. Students need practice “doing” to learn more about new concepts and to begin conceptualizing things in a way that is meaningful to them. When teachers use invitations, the goal is getting students to engage more holistically with the materials and learn through exploration.


How do I create provocations?

When teachers use provocations, the intent is more clear. In many cases, a provocation seeks action. In my classrooms, provocations have been sparked with a leading question (or set of questions). While there are no requests for specific action, provocations should elicit an action from students in a way that helps them explore and better understand the question being asked.

Pick up similar affordable wooden pieces and loose parts here.

Creating provocations should begin with a question. Consider the purpose of the provocation, and how natural learning will follow. Reflect on what your students already know and what they enjoy learning about. Then, think about how to incorporate those interests into provocations that students will naturally be curious about. It is important to think about the “flow” students will have when engaging with a provocation. Provide opportunities for students to branch off and explore separate or smaller questions when the inkling arises. We’ve provided some examples of fun, authentic learning provocations in this article, including incorporating observation tables, treasure boxes, and wonder walls.


Examples of invitations and provocations

Topic / ConceptInvitationProvocation Questions
NatureArrange a few clear tubs of flowers, petals, rocks, twigs, and shells
Write on a whiteboard “What can you make with nature?”
Include thick paper, coloured pencils, and glue on the table so students can create their artwork
(I was happy to find affordable tactile beach shells here)
How do we use nature?
What does a perfect environment look like?
Can you create a beautiful environment?
How does nature heal us?
(More examples of nature and environment questions can be found in our downloadable PDF)
BuildingLay out some building materials (for example, blocks, recycled materials, or this engineering set)
Hang some photos or blueprints of famous buildings on a cork board and invite students to build a structure or experiment with the engineering set
Can you build a tall structure?
What can you design with recycled materials?
How does a pulley work?
SuperheroesWrite “Can you make a superhero?” on a mini chalkboard
Lay out tubs of clay, string, photos, and comic books for students to explore
Additionally, write vocabulary like “strong”, “kind”, “helpful” on a nearby word wall
What does a superhero look like?
Who is a superhero in your life?
What makes someone a superhero?

If you’re looking for a complete set of inquiry questions to choose from, our Essential Questions PDF Book is filled with 400 of them (and it’s totally free!)


Designing environments for invitations and provocations

We previously wrote about how to create beautiful and effective learning environments in a previous post. Teachers need to consider what types of learning environments encourage students to think independently, which ones support teamwork, and which ones encourage a community-based approach to inquiry. Different learning environments can help address the diverse needs of students in the classroom. In addition, they give students the space and tools to develop specific soft skills.

In general, I try to incorporate the following principles when designing my inquiry environments:

PrincipleWhat this looks like in the classroom
Introduce new items, materials, and ideas for students to exploreGather and arrange age-appropriate loose parts, books, equipment, and kits to offer students
Design the learning environment with students in mindFurniture and tables are child-height (about 50 cm in height for younger students), materials are in clear containers or baskets that are easily accessible on low shelves
Encourage students to take pride in their discoveries and creationsHang student artwork, photos of their creations, and blurbs about their projects to give students a sense of ownership
Balance student freedom with safety guidelines Teach students about handling objects safely, hang photos of proper use and storage of materials in the work space
Promote independence and soft-skill developmentAllow students the space to make mistakes, cooperate with one another, and solve problems independently

Other Tips

  • Think about the natural “next steps” a student might take, and provide items that might complement your set-up nicely
  • Loose parts should be laid out in a way that is inviting and that allows students to see the objects and materials clearly
  • Do not expect students to interact with the materials in a particular way; simply allow them to observe, touch, move, and create what feels natural to them
  • Have fun! Invitations and provocations are designed to give students the space to enjoy new materials and ask questions with minimal teacher interference – sit back, take some notes, and enjoy the inquiry learning process

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7 Responses

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  3. Zombie says:

    Reggio-inspired teachers may approach provocations differently from classroom to classroom, and that’s okay! One of the most crucial aspects of a provocation is that there is no “wrong” outcome of a provocation. They are open ended jumping off points for children to investigate, which is the more explicit difference between invitations and provocations. Invitations have a desired outcome, rather than gently encouraging exploration. This can be a fine line to walk. For instance, many classrooms have a literacy activity center, where there are explicit learning goals. This could be tracing letters or through instruction-based activities like word study, or providing letter forms for tracing. Alternatively, with a provocation-based learning center, children may just be given a slight bit of encouragement through open-ended writing practices. In these instances, children would be provided just the materials (paper, shapes, loose parts, clay, writing utensils etc.) and a prompt without a specified outcome, despite the obvious intention of the educator to teach. When planning to create provocations for your child at your home, get creative! The more unique the materials, the more engaged your child may be. Educators tend to use nature based elements, everyday household items, and other repurposed materials, but don’t let those examples dictate what you do with your child. In fact, there really is no magic formula of how to make a provocation, only suggestions on materials to use. At the end of the day, any material or object can be used to provoke thought, discussion, questions, and interests from children. Educators like to use natural materials to provoke, as they tend to deeply appeal to both us and our children s senses. From colors, smells, textures and even tastes for the particularly curious there is so much to provoke engagement. Natural materials may include things like pine cones, seeds, leaves, sticks, nuts, and shells. As long as the materials provoke an open-ended question that allows for a means of expression where possible, then the item is suitable for a provocation. This could be something as simple as a photo of a rock sculpture or as elaborate as an assortment of different materials in a basket, but the end goal remains the same.

  4. Basilius says:

    I wonder if it matters that we fully understand the difference between the two? Or is it more important that we think about why this learning for this child at this time? Provocations and invitations speak to an educator s understanding that knowing our learners is at the heart of what we do.

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