The Learning Pit

Stories of The Learning Pit impact

First Grade – Measurement/Volume

Catherine Jennings is a 1st grade teacher at Olympia West Elementary school in Central Illinois.  She has a Learning Pit on the wall in her classroom and uses it often as a framework to help her students feel okay about the discomfort associated with deeper learning and as a way to encourage students to persevere through challenges.  She shared the following example of her students working through the Learning Pit:

  • Concept:  Measurement of volume.  Ms. Jennings had a variety of containers that can hold liquid laid out in front of the students and posed the question-  ‘Which item could hold the most water?’  The students did not have extensive knowledge about volume, but they have been studying measurement and they were able to make guesses based on their own experiences.  Their initial response was to select the tallest container.
  • Identifying Contradictions:  After the students selected the tallest container, Ms. Jennings used questions to prompt the students to consider other options besides the tallest container.  She asked the following questions:
    • What do the bottoms look like?  What do you notice if you compare the bottom of an item to the top of an item? Are they the same? Different?
    • Does that answer change from item to item?
    • Examine the sides of the containers- what do you notice about the sides? Do the sides create a straight line? If not, what do you think the flared side does to the amount of water an object can hold?
    • will I do to actually measure (compare) the amount of water each item can hold? What could I use? What wouldn’t make sense to use?

The students began to question their original answer as they considered the questions and began to wonder whether sometimes a short container that has a larger base might hold MORE water.

  • Examine all options:  Next Ms. Jennings had the student compare some of the containers by looking at all of the dimensions and taking notice of whether or not the sides flared out.
  • Strive for meaning:  Ms. Jennings asked her students to think about how they could measure and compare the amount of liquid two containers can hold.  The students had many ideas, but most were based on their initial ideas about the height of the container.  When pushed to think about all of the factors they were considering, they decided to fill the containers and pour them into two identical cups to make a comparison.  They were excited to find that the shorter, wider container held more water than the taller container.
  • Connect and explain:  As a result of the students’ observations and discussions about how much liquid the various containers could hold followed by the experience of actually comparing the amount of liquid led them to an understanding that to the understanding that the container that looked the biggest did not equate to the container that held the most water. They understood that a small bottom versus wider top in a container meant more liquid than a container of the same height where the bottom and top stayed the same size. They understood the short and wide container could probably hold as much liquid as something tall and skinny.
  • Enjoy clarity:  This experience will help these young mathemeticians to understand that volume (a math term that they will use later in their schooling) is impacted by all dimensions of the container.

Second Grade – AM/PM on a clock

Darci Beachy is a 2nd grade teacher at Olympia West Elementary in Central Illinois.  She also has a Learning Pit on the wall in her room and regularly references it to encourage her students to embrace challenge.

She shared an example of her students working through the Learning Pit when exploring the answer to the question ‘When do you think the clock switches from AM to PM?’.  The students started out with the idea that AM is morning and PM is night.  They were immediately able to identify that they brush their teeth right away in the morning, which would be AM and then again before going to bed, which would be PM.  They were also sure that breakfast was in the AM and dinner was in the PM.  When Ms. Beachy asked about lunch, however, the students began to wobble and because of their experience with being in the Learning Pit, they immediately began sharing options about how they could find the answer and they collaborated on a plan to check their ideas.

NOTE– Often the Learning Pit lessons that we encourage do not have one right answer because we hope to encourage ongoing dialogue and the possibility of returning to the Pit to gain even more understanding, but this is a great example of how students who are familiar with the Learning Pit did not panic when they realized they weren’t sure about the answer and instead used the tools they have learned in previous Learning Pit experiences.

Learning Pit Images

Classic Learning Pit

Learning Pit Teaching Steps

British School- Netherlands Learning Pit

Kingsley Junior High, Normal IL Learning Pit

Fox Elementary, Klein TX Learning Pit Mural

Drawing the Learning Pit

We advise you to ensure the right-hand-side of the Learning Pit is higher than the left, so as to give the correct impression that going through the pit will result in an enhanced understanding. For example, the illustration on the left was the first draft seen in a classroom in the Middle East. The version of the right is the amended version which is much more accurate.

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