Case study – planning a workshop for engagement and learning

The evolution of a plesiosaur

This workshop had 4 sections to it which you can read about here in the 4 steps.

Step 1

The children were introduced to the task of working like palaeontologists to reassemble a skeleton of an unknown creature. Talk by the workshop leader was kept to a bare minimum; children, especially those who may have ADHD, have short attention spans and need to be hooked as soon as possible. (You can talk more later, if you have to, when they know they are engaged with the topic.)

The task was presented as an exciting challenge. Could they work like the original palaeontologists who, in the 1820s, set about assembling a skeleton using fossilised bones?

Working in groups of 3 or 4, they were to position a set of replica fossilised bones into the shape of a creature.

The creature needed to have 4 limbs, a head and a tail.

Step 2

The children worked collaboratively to piece together the creature, using the replica fossilised bones that they were given. Learners, especially younger learners, don’t always bring prior knowledge to bear on new situations but they benefit hugely when they do. So the facilitator’s role and that of the teachers and assistants was to encourage these connections

Children were praised for making connections with their own human skeleton – children study this earlier in Key Stage 2, as well as in Key Stage 1. Looking at their own fingers, for example, would allow them to see examples of multiple tiny bones, or they could look at their legs to see examples of large, strong bones. This knowledge helped them to assemble the unknown skeleton.

Step 3

The group was taken to see an example of the fossilised creature whose skeleton they had been assembling – a large plesiosaur. They were amused at how different their own creatures were from this one and they were encouraged to laugh about the situation. Their own creatures resembled aliens, dogs or dinosaurs (and all manner of other creatures), but none of them had the plesiosaur’s long neck!

The children weren’t disappointed by their ‘failure’! Instead, they were told that they had just experienced a little bit of what it must have been like to be an early palaeontologist, encountering creatures for the first time and trying to make sense of them!

Children were encouraged to empathise – and learn that we don’t always get things right first time.

Like the early palaeontologists, many of the students had confused the tail bones and the neck bones, mostly assuming that the creature had a long tail. This is because in the animal kingdom, it is not very common to have a long neck. None of the groups had given their skeleton a ridiculously long neck, like the real plesiosaur.

They explored the skeleton, looked at the bones, then returned to their own creatures in the first room to work together once more to reassemble the replica bones.

Step 4

The facilitator explained how evolution leads to long necks and that the neck probably offered an evolutionary advantage, encouraging the survival of the plesiosaurs with long necks.

The children’s next task, working in pairs, groups or alone, was to think of other creatures that have (or had) long necks. Their suggestions included dinosaurs, swans, giraffes and flamingos. What advantage could the long neck offer each creature? Children were then encouraged to develop their own theories about why the plesiosaur evolved its long neck – what advantages might they have had if their necks were slightly longer than those of their peers? Could they apply knowledge about the other animals?

Emphasis was placed on the fact that we can’t know the answer for sure at this stage (though science in the future may help), but that by thinking of a range of theories, children were working scientifically – and their views are just as valid as those of other scientists who have suggested similar theories!

What were the benefits of this workshop for learners, and what can we take away from it?

This workshop is a great example of a situation of learning from mistakes. The children were able to recognise human fallibility – we don’t always get it right, especially in the world of science.

The workshop was built around the learners actively ‘doing’ things (kinaesthetic learning) – with talk from the workshop leader kept to a minimum. This is because learners are much more likely to remember what they have done than what they have been told. It was experiential as they were taking on the roles and processes of other palaeontologists. The students felt mature and grown up because they were thinking like scientists. 

The situation was kept humorous and amusing – we learn more when we’re in a relaxed state and remember more when it’s connected with an emotional response, so lightening the mood with humour is great! Children could also empathise with the difficulties faced by early palaeontologists, again allowing them to engage emotionally with the workshop.

New knowledge is much more likely to be retained if it is built on prior knowledge. This has been shown in many tests. For example, when students are given facts about a famous person they have heard of, they are twice as likely to retain the facts than if they are about an unknown person they’ve never heard of. Prior knowledge was built on in this workshop by thinking about the relative size of bones within a skeleton and thinking about animals with long necks. Wherever possible, try to anchor learning on prior knowledge. It makes the unfamiliar (a plesiosaur) meaningful (e.g. a bit like a swan).

A growth mindset was fostered throughout – the emphasis was on persevering and on not being afraid to get things wrong. Emphasis was also placed on the fact that there are multiple valid theories that can be puzzled out. Students were presented with a situation where the experts have got things wrong but have learnt from their mistakes.