The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Learning By Doing

There is a lot of talk in the education world about project-based learning. More specifically, there is a lot of talk about what it is and what it is not. There are some teachers who think that all learning should be done through projects. There are some teachers who don’t like projects at all. I tend to find myself somewhere in the middle. I love guiding students through learning with projects, but I also believe there is a place for learning through more traditional strategies, such as reading textbooks, having class discussions, and using graphic organisers to record information.

We have started a new science unit this week, learning about electricity. This will transition into a unit on energy and renewable and non-renewable resources. I set aside a block of time on Wednesday mornings for something I call “I Wonder Wednesday.” This time can be used for extra practice, for research, for independent work or, like today, experimentation.

I decided to see what my students could discover about electricity on their own. We made a list of things they already knew and then made a list of questions they had. (This is known as the classic KWL chart exercise.)


Then I got out my big tub o’ electronics and pulled out the following items: a  propeller, a motor (with two wires attached), and a AAA (1.5V) battery. I made twelve sets of these items and had the students get together with partners. Their objective was deceptively simple: arrange the items in such a way as the spin the propeller.

Before starting, we reviewed classroom safety rules. Then the students were free to do whatever they could. Some were able to create a closed circuit right away, either because they have learned how to do so before or because they were lucky enough to arrange the pieces the right way. Others took longer. Some of the students who figured it out early on helped those who were struggling. After figuring out how to make a closed circuit, some of them decided to experiment with other techniques. They learned how to reverse the direction of the motor, how to create a series, and how to attach multiple motors to a single battery. They all had a great time doing it but, more importantly, they learned about basic circuits in a way that will probably stay with them a lot longer than if I had just had them read about it in a textbook!








We will do more experiments with electricity over the next few weeks. I can’t wait to see what else the students discover!


2 responses

  1. Hi Alex
    This example was really useful to me.
    Please also note that right now, on my screen, the advertising spot just above your social media links (above) is taken up by a rather tasteless ad for an ‘x-ray scanner’ reavaling the derriere of a young woman… I’m sure that’s not what you signed up for.

    January 10, 2013 at 11:50 am

    • Thanks for the heads-up. I have no control over the ads that show up and, unfortunately, I can’t see them when I am logged into my account. (I’m not sure why.) The ads rotate, so I have not seen the one you saw. That being said, WordPress has asked that If you see an inappropriate ad, please report it to

      January 10, 2013 at 8:02 pm

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