Exploring Systems through Objects: A Close Look at Student Work (Part 1)

I’m a relatively new addition to the Out of Eden Learn (OOEL) team, although I’ve been working at Project Zero for almost a decade.  Part of my background is in museum education, so I’m particularly interested in learning experiences that incorporate objects, whether works of art on a gallery wall, natural history specimens under glass, fish in an aquarium, or commonplace items that surround us.  I’ve thus been especially curious about elements of the OOEL curriculum that invite students to explore objects around them, like the Connecting Everyday Objects to Bigger Systems footstep in the Core Learning Journey 2 curriculum.  I recently set out to see what was happening in that footstep and how students might be exploring systems using objects as inspiration.  In this post, I share a bit about my process and one set of findings, and in the next post, I’ll share a second set of findings as well as some overall questions and implications.

Exploring Student Work in a Footstep of their Learning Journey

The Connecting Everyday Objects to Bigger Systems footstep, like most OOEL activities, is framed quite broadly to allow space for students to explore their own interests. However, as the name of the Core Learning Journey: The Past and the Global suggests, its intent is to help students recognize that everyday objects can be seen as part of a web of larger, often global, connections.  The footstep (which is also available as a stand-alone activity) also engages students in all three of the overarching OOEL learning goals:  students slow down to look closely at an object, they consider the stories it might be a part of, and they make connections between the object and the wider world.  

The footstep invites students “to look closely at an everyday object and then make connections between what you notice and bigger systems that the object might be part of.”  They are prompted to engage in a sequence of activities to explore an object and related systems: they select an object, look closely and slowly at it, write questions they have about it, consider different systems that could relate to it, and draw a diagram of the different parts of one relevant system.  Students are then asked to share their diagram with peers in their walking party, with a picture of their chosen object if possible.  Many students also posted text explaining their diagram, and some only posted a written description, without any visual diagram or object image.

I looked at student discussion board posts from this footstep that were shared on the OOEL online platform from two 2019 walking parties (groups of classrooms with similarly aged students from different countries around the world).  The 2021 posts were still in progress as I began, and the 2020 work was disrupted, like so much else, by COVID-19, so I went back to 2019 posts to get a sense of what might be more typical student work for this particular footstep.  I selected two walking parties with students in diverse geographical locations that had students aged 10-14, although students of other ages also engage with this material.  There were just over 90 students who posted work for this footstep across the two walking parties.  

I started looking through students’ posts, including their written descriptions and diagram images, with some possible questions in mind:

  • What kind of objects do students select?
  • What systems do students connect objects to?
  • Do students discuss their rationale for selecting the object, and, if so, what are the rationales?
  • What kinds of questions do students ask about the object?
  • What objects/systems seem to spark the most student dialogue?

While the answers to these questions may be interesting and generative, two unexpected patterns really stood out to me as I began investigating students’ work.  These patterns raised questions that I hadn’t gone into the exploration even considering: 1. What did students focus on when diagramming their object-based system? and 2. How were students representing the relationships between system elements in their diagrams? Below, I discuss my observations around the first question, and the next blog post will explore the second question.

What Did Students Focus on When Diagramming Their Object-Based System?

I noticed that the focus of students’ work in their systems diagrams generally fell into one of three categories: parts of an item, a process without human involvement, and people’s involvement in a process.

Parts: Although this was not an especially common area of focus, a few students illustrated the object itself as a system, identifying different parts of the object as the elements of the system.  Students focused on the parts of both natural objects, like this date plant:

Foodlover22 (1. See note below), age 11, United States

as well as human-created objects, like this soccer ball:

wolf03, age 14, Mexico

Processes: More commonly, students focused on a process in their diagram.  This was most often the process of manufacturing the selected object.  Some of these diagrams illustrated the process without explicitly incorporating people who might be involved in particular elements.  Such diagrams visualized, for example, various parts in the process of transforming raw materials into a finished product, such as this diagram showing steps in the process of transforming sheep’s wool into a sweater:

ScarletXscratch, age 12, Ghana

Other students illustrated the steps in the distribution or sale of their chosen object, like this system of car transport to a dealer:

dadabmaster, age 11, Ghana

People: Students who created system diagrams of a process frequently incorporated human contributions to the system, unlike the examples illustrated above.  Some students just identified people as an end user or consumer of the object, like the student below:

SuperHippo, age 12, Ghana

Other students identified people involved in the creation, as well as the consumption, of an object, like the bracelet maker and buyer illustrated below:

gogo8799, age 12, Ghana

Although it wasn’t something I went into my preliminary investigation of student work considering, it was interesting to observe students’ focus on the parts of an item, a process without human involvement, or process with people’s contributions in their object-based system diagrams.  In the next post, I’ll discuss the second set of findings from my exploration.

Note: 1. Students select anonymous usernames to represent themselves to peers on the OOEL online platform, and those usernames are provided here when attributing work to students.

One comment

  1. […] again!  I hope you enjoyed my previous post in this two-part series, where I discussed how I came to explore students’ diagrams from the […]

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