Monday, October 05, 2009

Learning about Whale Evolution from National Geographic

In The Missing Link, I laid out an inquiry on whale evolution that uses data from a written article. This is a different style of inquiry than many people think of, since the students don't collect the data themselves. That would be kind of hard for them to do, right, since they're not paleontologists! So, this style of inquiry has them looking at, thinking through, and explaining data that other scientists have collected and published.

The article is "The Evolution of Whales" from November, 2001, of National Geographic. I could not find an electronic version of the article anywhere, however. Probably, it's easily accessible to teachers, though, since most school media centers carry National Geographic. A work-around is Edward Babinski's web-based summary of the article, which also includes some nice drawings.

I like the article because of how it traces whale evolution in a broad sweep, rather than bogging down in the details. Although this 50,000-feet level will be helpful to middle- and high-schoolers who read the article, it will also probably cause them to trip up over some of the details. That's why I've created the graphic organizer that appears here for students' use when reading the article. The graphic organizer scaffolds the students' reading of the article by focusing them on the most important information. In The Missing Link, I proposed a fairly generic graphic organizer. I've been looking for this opportunity to develop one that is more specific, in case teachers need tighter scaffolding for the article.

Teachers can use this graphic organizer as a base for thinking about how much scaffolding their student need. Older students, or those who are adept at inquiry, need less scaffolding as they approach a complex data source. Teachers can remove some of the scaffolding by taking away the species names in the left-most column and thereby require students to decide as they read the article which species of the ones mentioned are the most important. By keeping the scientists' names in the graphic organizer, as shown in the version here, the students still have some guidance as they work. To remove almost all of the scaffolding, teachers would remove the scientist names as well.

Teachers can also scaffold the activity more tightly for younger students and students new to inquiry by filling in more information and thereby providing more guidance for the students as they work. The image shows a version I created by leaving the text for the cell on each line that I thought was the most difficult to extract from the article. This is the least obvious information, and by providing it to the students, I prevent frustration from impeding their process on the inquiry.

I created the last graphic organizer from a completely filled out one that is my version which I completed as I dug into the article. As I teach the inquiry, I'll have that version with me for my own reference if students get stuck. Since it was already filled out, removing information from some of the cells made creating the most structured version of the graphic organizer a 3-minute process.

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