What We Already Know

Play is the answer to how anything new comes about. – Jean Piaget

Where do we get our ideas? Jonathan Drori (TED Talk “What We Think We Know“) says:

Children get their ideas not from teachers, as teachers often think, but actually from common sense, from experience of the world around them, from all the things that go on between them and their peers, and their carers, and their parents, and all of that. Experience.

Our Grade 3 students are inquiring into forces. As they experiment with inclined planes and friction, gravity and inertia, pushes and pulls, I realize that the students already inherently ‘know’ all about Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion because, for the last 9 years of their lives, they have being playing with cars, balls, buckets of water, and engaging in running games with each other.

We don’t need to teach them these laws.   They are already applying and proving these laws daily. They are experts. So, what is it that we want to get into the students’ heads about the laws of motion? I am not a physics teacher. I am learning with the students as we experiment and play with the laws. So, I need to be careful what I plan to ‘get into their heads.’

Drori warns us, paraphrased from Cardinal Wolsey,:

Be very careful what you get into people’s heads because it’s virtually impossible to shift it afterwards.

Maybe we don’t need to teach them. Maybe we can, instead,  provide them the opportunity to consider what they already know and provoke them with the question:

What cool things can you do using Newton’s Laws of Motion?

Show me.

And let them fly.

May 2013 update: During Grade 3 unit on forces we introduced Rube Goldberg machines to the students. My colleague, John Rinker, blogged about the success of allowing kids to create ‘cool things’ like Rube Goldberg machines here.

5 thoughts on “What We Already Know

  1. Perfect. I wonder if the verbalising of the laws in their words could be a linguistic mode of consolidating their experiential understandings at the end of the process….Pictures with arrows would work for the visually inclined.

    I wonder if the unfriendly language these laws were expressed in was one of the reasons Physics seemed so unattractive to me when I was in school…


    • I know! Physics seemed like the most complicated thing ever when I was in school.
      Now, we can go onto Youtube and find so many short videos that clearly and simply explain the science behind the laws of physics. For instance, here is a video explaining forces and gravitational pull. It uses pictures with arrows like you suggested. Brilliant.


  2. Thanks Marina-
    I too am intrigued by constructivism- when we realize that kids already know so much based on their (albeit short) life experience…. they just need to be provided with opportunities to construct more formal understandings of the things that they encounter every day through play.

    I think that we as ‘guides on the side’ are there to encourage the articulation of their ideas, also to provide language; vocabulary that they might not know and perhaps a bit of history- how these concepts were explored by the scientific community. In this way, teachers do serve a very important purpose- to extend knowledge and to celebrate the new meanings that are constructed by the students themselves.
    Thanks for sharing-


    • Agreed. You explained the role of the teacher well. I like the expression ‘guides on the side.’ I’ve heard the words ‘facilitator’ and ‘coach’ used as well.



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