These Exploration Stations are not a new concept, especially for primary grades. The primary grades have had centres for decades, but I never had them when I was a child (because I am so old), and I didn't use them before because I was trained for intermediate teaching.
I have tried centres before in my career, but they were an abysmal failure because I couldn't manage them properly:
- I couldn't keep up with replenishing the materials.
- Not everyone got to all the centres because they could only go when they completed all of their other work.
- The students got bored of the centres quickly, or kept going to the same ones every time.
- It was too chaotic in terms of mess and noise.
- I felt like I had to clone myself to get to all the centres so I could instruct everyone.
- The centres were not meaningful because they came off as busywork.
- Students weren't learning anything.
Learning from Ghosts of Centres Past
My present Exploration Stations are much more successful. I'll talk about the successes now, based on the failures of the past.
1. I couldn't keep up with replenishing the materials.
I only use materials directly on hand or materials I can get easily and cheaply. Another problem was that I used to have an accompanying worksheet for each of my centres. That was a big mistake. They were too wordy and I would have to re-instruct everyone every time they went to a new centre. (See #5)
2. Not everyone got to all the centres because they could only go when they completed all of their other work.
This was a conceptual error. I viewed centres as an "extra" for students to do after the learning. Now I view the stations AS the learning. Now, I build it into my week and everyone goes to the stations. The learning they do at the stations is authentic, valuable, varied, and takes a combination of a range of skills.
3. The students got bored of the centres quickly, or kept going to the same ones every time.
In the interest of choice, I always used to let students pick which centre they went to. Now, I am of the philosophy that school should give students a range of experiences that they wouldn't normally have. To achieve this, when I first introduce a set of stations, I form the groups, and each group rotates through every station for at least 15 minutes at each station. Why? I want students to work with people who they normally wouldn't choose off the bat. I want students to experience every station. I want them to spend time exploring that new experience and 15 minutes is a good start; but it is also short enough so that if a particular station is not your cup of tea, then 15 minutes is short enough to be bearable. I also let students know what after the initial rotation, they will have more choice about which Exploration Stations they do.
4. It was too chaotic in terms of mess and noise.
Now I do a way better job of setting my expectations. During that initial rotation where everyone experiences every station, I train them about how to set up and put away every station. (6Ts: Think, Try, Take care of materials, Talk in tiny voices, Take turns and share, and Tidy)
5. I felt like I had to clone myself to get to all the centres so I could instruct everyone.
Another huge conceptual error. Before, I had very specific curricular outcomes I wanted to achieve at each station, hence the worksheets. Now, I have global outcomes, but they are still very open in terms of expectations. For example, some stations are meant for creativity, or socialization, or motor coordination, etc. Also, the stations I choose are quick to set up and have little to no explanation to them. They are
Exploration stations so that I am not telling students what to learn. They are constructing their own learning.
6. The centres were not meaningful because they came off as busywork.
Before, they were busywork because they were an extra. Now, I am very clear about my intentions at the Exploration Stations and why I do them (I want students to learn and practise a whole bunch of life skills in real life ways). I tell students that I expect there to be problems because this is the real life part, and real life has real problems. When problems do occur during the stations, I do not intervene unless it is a safety issue. I give students a chance to work out their own problems because in real life, I won't be there to step in. An effective way to deal with problems has been the check in times. Every ten minutes or so, I call everyone together away from the stations to "check in". We talk about what they are learning, what is working, and what isn't. When they have a problem, they can share it (without mentioning any names), and the rest of the class can offer suggestions. This process has worked very well.
7. Students weren't learning anything.
Before, the students really weren't learning anything or they were learning, but not the things that I intended, so I dismissed it. Now the students are learning, and learning things that I never intended, but now that is wonderful! How do I know they are learning? Because now instead of instructing, micromanaging, and putting out fires, I have time to go around and observe while students explore. Because now I have time to have discussions, record, take pictures, and shoot video. Because of what students say at check in time. And because of the Thought Logs. Every student has a log in which they record which station they explored, what they learned, and how they felt about the station. It is a great record for the kids I might not get to that day. I use the Thought Logs to frame my introduction to the next Exploration Station session: "I noticed in Jim's log that..."
Here are the stations that have worked well:
In brackets is my original, global intent for each station.
- microscopes. (observation) I only set up 2 so students have to share.
- bulbs and batteries. (logic, science) They love this station. I got some supplies from the science room and bought some dollar store C cell batteries. They make circuits and figure out why some work and some don't.
- table hockey. (motor coordination, spatial ability) Wildly popular (I'm in Canada, remember?) During the choice times when students can pick their own stations, I'll have 12 people there, taking turns, forming teams (sometimes four to a side), and having fun. Sure there is some motor coordination involved but also there are a lot of interpersonal skills that go into playing this game.
- 2 pieces of paper. (creativity) I have a variety of pieces of paper in a basket. A lot of them are discards from the paper cutter and photocopier. Students can do anything they want, but they can only take two pieces of paper. I am amazed at what the students do with a little bit of freedom: stories, cards, origami, gluing, colouring, doll making, paper airplanes, etc.
- duplo (creativity, spatial). I put out a big tub of duplo. During the initial rotation, there is enough for everyone, but when there is choice time, students have to really negotiate for their pieces.
- Pez puppets. (make believe play) I had a bunch of Pez dispensers. Students make up stories and plays and have the Pez dispensers act them out. I saw a couple of shy kids really come out of their shells with this station.
- yo-yos. (motor coordination, life skill) I bought a few yo-yos at the dollar store because I wanted to show kids they could have fun without a huge amount of money or electronics. This simple activity accomplishes that. Because the same boys who would be on the DSs or video games at home seemed to gravitate toward the yo-yos. Interestingly, for that same group of boys, yo-yos are more popular than the hockey game I think because it is less crowded and has more potential for showing off (by doing tricks) just like video games.
- chopsticks. (fine motor coordination, life skill) This is a lot like the yo-yos. Kids challenge themselves or others by moving things or placing bottle caps in an arrangement.
- playdoh. Who would have thought that playdoh would not be popular? The kids found it too messy and were disappointed when they had to crush their creations in order to put them away.
- the Smartboard. I had more fights over the Smartboard than any other station: kids took over, kids took too many turns, kids stood in the way of the projector, kids pressed the wrong button which messed the activity up for everyone, etc. The problem with using the Smartboard in these groups is that really only one person can use it at a time, so for the others it was too much waiting.
- pattern blocks. No one chose this during choice time despite being acceptable during the initial rotations. One student offered the explanation: "It's too much like 'school'."
Like I said, I am an intermediate teacher teaching a primary classroom. I had to get my head around the fact that play can be learning, but that it takes a teacher to frame it into learning. And if you have any cheap and easy centre ideas of your own, please send them my way.