January 14 - The Art of Inference

These two activities are ones that I picked up from two great Educators.  The first was from a workshop I attended at Tokyo International School with Kath Murdoch.  The second was picked up at a workshop at the University of Toronto (OISE) from Garfield Gini-Newman.  Both great activities; highly recommended for showing teaching kids the concept of making an inference.

What's Under the Mat

Put an object under a mat (sheet, towel, etc).  Make sure the object is obscure enough that they won't get it right away, but not so difficult that they will have no idea what it is.  I took a small plastic stand that is used to hold up glue guns from the art room.  It worked wonderfully, because even after we took off the towel they still didn't know what it was, and had to make further inferences based on its color and over state of disrepair (glue burns and stains).  This can be done in small groups (though you might need a lot of items depending on the size of your class).  Here is what we did:

  • Show them the item the item under the towel, but no do let them touch it yet.  This will force them to use their other senses for their initial evidence gathering.  Have a student act as a recorder and write down all the ideas and observations that are made at this step.  Or, have each student record their own observations individually.

  • Allow them to touch the item with the palms of their hands, but not their fingers, and have a student record the thoughts and observations.  Better yet, have a recording device to capture the whole thing on an audio file.  It can later be reviewed and we can break down their logic and thinking as a group.

  • Let them feel with their finger tips, but they are not to pick up the object yet.  Again, record observations.

  • Finally, them use their complete hands to touch the item, pick it up (though we careful they don't take the towel off!) and really give it a good investigation.  Record Observations.

  • Have everybody in the group make a guess at what the object is.  Have a discussion and try and back up your idea with the evidence you have collected thought the preceding steps.

  • Reveal the item.  If it still requires more observation and thinking, allow them to do so now.  Make sure they continue to record their ideas.


This is a great activity to dissect the process of thought.  It really gets them thinking on a logical level, and it forces them to back up their ideas with evidence and observation.  For me, the recording along the way is vital.  They act as a map that shows how the original thought was expanded and built upon as new evidence was introduced.  As a class, have a discussion and start dissecting the ideas, pointing out how their thought process changed along the way.

Look at this Photo

The second activity we did today doesn't really have a name, but it is fun and is filled with ideas and great thinking.  Use this picture (or if you have another, please share it with me, as I am always looking for more great photos that are packed with information and hidden nuances):

North American Shopmen


The next step is simple; and will more than likely set off a furious avalanche of ideas, inferences and hypothesis'.




  • In what month was this photo taken?

  • On what day of the week was this photo taken?


There is enough information in here to keep them going for a while.  The only piece of information you can provide them is the only piece of information I know, the photo was taken in Glenbow, Alberta.  Other than that, the rest is up to you and your power of observation!  I like to have somebody recording the observations (or I do it myself), and then we have a de-brief at the end and look at how our ideas changed based on new observations.  The great thing about this photo is that there is no answer.  As a final activity, have the students write out their theory, debate it with each other (which would allow to teach the rules of debate as a skill-set) or have them write a newspaper article to accompany the image.

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