Inquiry Stylee: Horse Skeleton (?)

You need to wrangle those questions. Think “Judo:” How can I use my opponent’s natural impetus to direct them where I want them to go? That’s it. That’s the only good pedagogical idea I’ll ever have, I promise.

This started as a discussion about torque. It ended with a 6-day festival of inquiry, one enigmatic skeleton, a Subway party platter, and some serious debate. This might by the only successful lesson I’ve ever not planned.

I wanted to teach torque, and the usual train of thought got on the tracks, “What do I need to do to make this real? What do I need to make this sincerely motivated? How can I generate math without obfuscating it?” Let’s talk motivation. I’ve been reading a lot about this, and I’m not talking about those ridiculous motivational posters:

This was the most motivational one I could find.

Motivation for a math (or physics) lesson is not:

  1. “Hey look at this equation I just wrote on the board, let’s figure it out, my team little learners!”
  2. “OMG I’m really excited and we have so much to learn today about zebra mating habits!”
  3. “This is going to be on the test, so let’s go!”

The student responses to those go something like this:

  1. “Whatever, man. You write the equations, I’ll use them blindly, hoping for correct answers that don’t mean anything to me.”
  2. “Geez, Teach is excited, what does he do? Sleep in the library and take a showers in pencil shavings?”
  3. “So … don’t put it on the test and let’s not cover it.”

That makes me feel like this.

Real motivation goes like this:

(I’m not bragging, this is just the only time it’s ever worked this well) I got out the horse skeleton (of carbon-dating-lesson fame) and reconstructed its hip joint.

The Whatever's Hip Joint

“How fast was this horse?”

That’s it, 5 words precipitated an entire of week of the best learning that has happened in my room to date. They played. They thought. They researched joints and musculature. We came back as a group to talk as a group to talk about torque. Force acting at a distance from a center of mass, Rotational “force,” whatever you want to call it. Here’s an SBG quiz I gave while we were studying this.

Estimate the amount of force that this hamstring needs to exert to lift the human lower leg.

The students did all sorts of crazy things. I had a group lay face down on a weight bench and put weights on a students feet until they couldn’t hold them up. They then attempted to measure the cross section of that student’s gluteus max. They attempted to find a maximum load for each square centimeter of muscle fiber. This is one of those moments where I shed a tear. They had to think about the assumptions they were making about the difference between a human glut and a horse’s. They had to think about how much of the student’s hip cross sectional area was actually muscle. I love this. The errors, the assumptions, the thinking.

Some students started to get a bit of a fishy feeling. “Was this really a horse?” They asked.

“I’m not sure, I found it dead while I was wandering around Wyoming,” I responded.1 They began to research. Some began to believe it was a cow. They measured the bone scarring from the ligament connections, they estimated torque. A minority report was formed that was convinced that this animal could not maintain horse-like speeds. How’s that for physics?

The debate got out of control. Luckily, high schoolers are easily baited. Some did not want it to be a horse. There were dental analyses done: they actually rigged up a pulley system that made the skull chew carrots. (I kid you not) They then extrapolated back to see if the torques would match up with the size of the jaw muscles for this animal. It was awesome, and I was acting as a resource, none of the questions were mine. If I had my lame teacher way, this would have been an activity in measuring a few ligament lever arms and doing an example on the board.

The horse vs. cow vs. elk vs. bison debate raged and eventually spilled over into my other physics sections. They asked me for more time. Some student did an unbelievably intense comparative morphology study. It was unreal. They called the agriculture extension of our local university.

They wanted to show each other what they had done. I’ve been doing this reporting out in class, but never across sections. So, we checked out a larger classroom, had Subway cater, and we held a little “What-the-hockey-sticks is it?” symposium over lunch. Other than students eating more than their fair share of sandwiches, things went swimmingly.

How Is This Inquiry?

Inquiry is simultaneously the Holy Grail and the door mat of science ed. Everyone claims to be doing inquiry, or at least partial inquiry. Which, and pardon my French, c’est un groupe de merde.

Partial? They only get to ask half a question? I know there are many ways to teach science for different student populations, but can we just drop the pretense for a minute? Are you letting the kids connect personally through their own questions that have arisen from their own life experiences, or are you giving them Campbell’s brand “inquiry” labs? I know there’s a gray area, but I’m trying to push you. I’m telling you that kids see school as a teacher-generated obstacle course full of garbage they have to do and forget. This makes me so angry that I can feel Cornally-Hulk coming out again in the middle of this post. Stop it. Without context there is no content: Parabolas!?! Why parabolas?!?!?

What I’m trying to say is that this investigation was not planned. I did not know the kids were going to fight over what animal this skeleton used to belong to, and let alone use physics as a weapon. The only thing I did was see the potential in the questions, and allow for the development of that potential. If you talk with your kids candidly, you’ll be horrified to find out how little they actually understand. You’ll also be pleasantly surprised to find out what questions they actually want to get answered.

You need to wrangle those questions. Think “Judo:” How can I use my opponent’s natural impetus to direct them where I want them to go? That’s it. That’s the only good pedagogical idea I’ll ever have, I promise.

They don’t naturally ask things like, “I wonder what the energy levels of the Bohr Hydrogen atom are?” That’s not a natural question, and don’t tell me it was for you, Cornally-Hulk will find you. You care about the energy levels of an electron because you’ve had a pile of training. These kids can barely spell “parabola,” let alone fend of roving bands of belligerent ones. That is all, have a good week.


1. I’m not really as awesome as that sounds. In fact I’m not really as cool as this blog makes me sound. On the same trip to Wyoming I was trying to catch fish with a spear and I ended up in a frigid river covered in moss. I also ran home at top speed after hearing a marmot knock down some rocks thinking it was a mountain lion.

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