Learning to Take Action – How Elementary School Students Create Change

Giving students an active role in the classroom is a key difference between inquiry-based learning and traditional learning. While in a traditional learning environment, the teacher prepares and guides lessons and students follow instructions, the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP) at Alto allows students to pursue their interests and to take action.

A recent PYP unit called “Sharing Our Planet” in grade 1 and 3 exemplifies how students shape the learning outcomes at Alto. Students are encouraged to apply their learning and take action. It starts with questions and finding answers (and asking even more questions). Inquiry-based learning involves many skills: Thinking, communicating, researching, conducting experiments, self-management, and more.

In grade 1, students learned about the ocean, animals, and plants in the ocean and how humans make use of the ocean. The research about human impact on our oceans, specifically plastic waste, quickly triggered the students to literally dive deeper: They investigated how plastic can become part of the food chain and created posters that displayed how much plastic is used every day. Next, students initiated a plastic challenge: Who can go without the use of plastic for an entire day? It started with the students, next the parents participated, and then the first-graders went from class to class to invite all elementary school kids to try as well.

When the students received a new set of legos for the classroom and found many packages of plastic while unwrapping the bricks, they started asking questions: Why does Lego use all this plastic? Is it necessary? Can’t they use paper bags? Students decided to send a letter to Lego asking to replace plastic with paper. It didn’t take long and Lego answered: They liked the idea of paper bags and forwarded the suggestion to their packaging design team. At Alto, students experience that their voices are heard and that their actions can trigger change.

Click here to read the full letter and the reply from Lego.

Meanwhile, grade 3 students learned about waste management and the impact on our environment. After a visit to the local waste and recycling company, students discussed how they could apply what they learned. As the grade 1 class, they took on the challenge to avoid plastic for a week. Students documented when they used plastic products if there were any alternatives and if the use of plastic was necessary. One student wore plastic-free clothes and shoes during this time and packed his lunch in reusable containers and glass jars. He quickly realized, “It’s so much heavier with all those plastic alternatives. It’s tiring walking to school.”  

The experience triggered new discussions: How can waste be avoided? Can we reuse items? The students decided to take action and with the help of their teacher started two initiatives: First, they contacted a local non-profit that collects gently used baby clothes and successfully organized a clothes drive at the school. In addition, while researching waste management solution in other countries, one student suggested holding a “Tauschmarkt” (German for swap meet), a concept that is popular in Europe. The whole class got excited about the idea to promote the reuse of toys and books: The first elementary school Tauschmarkt was born. Students created posters, invited other students, and set rules for the exchange. The event turned out to be a big success with many students in attendance.

Ending the “Sharing The Planet” unit doesn’t mean that the curiosity for the topic ends for students. By being actively involved in shaping the curriculum, students learn that their actions can make a difference not just within Alto but outside of school as well. Grade 3 students are already planning their next Tauschmarkt and to start a group called the “Green Pirates” to further promote waste management and reduction at school and at home.

Bettina v. Bodisco, Grade 3 Homeroom Teacher
Rikki Day, Grade 1 Homeroom Teacher

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