How long’s a piece of string?

fleur-treurniet-474142-unsplash string

Photo by Fleur Treurniet on Unsplash

Here’s a quick classroom task for upper primary, secondary, teens or adults. I’ve found it appeals most to younger teens.

Ask your class a question with “How long” e.g “How long does it take to digest a banana?”   Ask them to take a guess at the answer and then ask them, in pairs or small groups, to look it up on their phones.  They will get a range of different answers from a range of different sources.  See which ones match with their guesses and then discuss why there’s such a range of answers and which sources they trust more or less and why.

(If you don’t have phones or individual access to the internet in class, you can break this task down over two or three lessons – see footnote).

Now ask your students to think of general knowledge questions starting with “how long” and to write them down on strips of paper (fast finishers can contribute a second question is they want).  Place all the questions in a hat/envelope/handy box and then ask students in pairs or small groups to pick a question.  Make sure they don’t read their question until everyone has one.  Explain that they are going to have a race to see who can find the answers the quickest.  Before they get to look at their questions give them another strip of paper and tell them they are to write the answer on the paper along with the time it took them to find and choose a good answer.  Use your question as an example, writing the bare answer and time e.g. three to four hours (5 mins 20 seconds).

Start the web quest race.  As they find the answers, the students drop them into another hat/envelope/box and pick a new question.  Continue for as long as you want, or until the questions run out.  Once you’ve finished, ask the students to call out their shortest search time and ask them about any problems they had finding reliable answers.  Ask them to comment also on how reliable they think their answers were. Don’t ask for any specific questions or answers at this point, just use it as a moment to talk about the mechanics of searching, choosing search terms, and go-to websites.

Take the questions back from the students.  Read out each one and lay it out on a table, a desk, on the board, stuck around the walls of your classroom, whatever works for you.  Take this time to pause over any question formation problems or queries.  Ask the students not to call out their answers.  Then distribute the answers around the class (students should give back their own answers if they get any and take a new one).  The students work in their pairs/small groups to find the question for their answer.  Once all the questions and answers have been matched, ask the students to read them out, the students who answered the question can confirm whether or not the match is correct.   Take time out to discuss any interesting information that comes up.

When all the questions and answers have been dealt with, ask the students to work in small pairs or groups to recall as many of the questions as they can and to write them down on a sheet of paper.  They should have pretty good recall by this point.

In the next class, pick out questions and see if the students can remember the answers. Or read out the beginning of a question and get students to complete it. Or ask them to remember at least five questions from the previous lesson and then check against their list. Or any other recall activity you and your students like!

Why do it?

I think it’s fun.

It’s a good opportunity to work on search skills and discuss digital literacy issues like which website you can/can’t trust

It provides a context for reviewing question formation and you could open it out to other question words/phrases/frames if you want

It works with mixed level groups as everyone has a chance to write a question at their own level, and to learn from peers.


What if we don’t have access to the internet in class?

You can split the activity over a series of classes. First set the e.g. banana question for homework. Ask students to find the answer at home and report back on where they found the answer (the source), how they found it (the search terms they used, the websites they checked) and how reliable it might be.   Then ask the students to write their own questions. Share them with the class, maybe through a dictation activity and ask the students to guess the answers in pairs/small groups, keeping a record of their guesses.  For homework they find as many answers as they can and feed back on their findings in the next class.


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1 Response to How long’s a piece of string?

  1. Pingback: Ceri Jones: How long’s a piece of string | Salon des Refusés (redux)

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