Shaking things up!

By Claire Pattle

The title of this story, Shaking things up!, is not only referring to the topic of earthquakes but also to my goal in teaching grade 7 Geography. Teaching content by just covering a syllabus is boring for the teacher and the learners. I wanted to ‘shake things up’ in my lessons this year. I have followed a number of inquiry-based teachers on social media for a number of years but have never been brave enough to move away from the traditional way of teaching, mostly because the South African educational system is so ‘marks driven’. This task was inspired by those teachers in my PLN who teach using inquiry-based methods as well as design-thinking. After returning from the InnovateEDU Conference in Cape Town recently, where I was enthralled by Alan Antoine’s “Off the wall” teaching sessions, I decided to include this into the task. The effects were mind-blowing.

The vision

The vision

With this Inquiry-Based Learning unit, I included elements of design-thinking and got my students to students to discover and research:


How could we design a structure that could withstand the effects of an earthquake?



Curriculum standards

The vision
Curriculum standards


  • identify and solve problems and make decisions using critical and creative thinking
  • work effectively as individuals and with others as members of a team
  • organise and manage themselves and their activities responsibly and effectively
  • collect, analyse, organise and critically evaluate information
  • communicate effectively using visual, symbolic, and/or language skills in various modes
  • use science and technology effectively and critically showing responsibility towards the environment and the health of others, and demonstrate an understanding of the world as a set of related systems by recognising that problem-solving contexts do not exist in isolation.

Learning journey

The vision

Duration: 5 x 1 hour lessons

Teacher planning

The vision

In this particular learning journey, by combining elements of inquiry-based learning and design thinking students needed to research and document their findings to answer the driving question.


We made use of the following planning documents:



Design Thinking Task (digital planning booklet)

Building an earthquake-resistant structure - Instructions

Student activities

The vision



What do you see? What do you wonder?

Activity 1: 3D shapes exploration


Working in groups, discover the strength of different 3D shapes by building them using 3 sheets of A4 paper. Document the findings by taking photos of planning drawings and uploading into the Planning Google doc provided.

Activity 2: Manipulating Materials


How can the materials which you will be provided be individually manipulated to make them stronger? Document findings and upload them into the Planning Doc provided.

Activity 3: Prototyping 


Design two prototypes of earthquake-resistant structures using only the materials provided and document these by taking photos and uploading them into the Planning Doc provided.

Activity 4: Building 


Select one design from Activity 3 and build the earthquake-resistant structure using only the materials provided. Provide evidence of criteria met by taking photos and uploading to Photographic evidence and Review Google doc provided.

Activity 5: Peer group assessment


Assess each group member’s contribution to the planning phase of the project.

Activity 6: Test


Test your structure on the Shake Table to see whether your structure can withstand a 20 sec earthquake. Record your findings and review the processes from the planning phase in the Photographic evidence and Review Google doc provided.

Student reflections

The vision
Student reflections
Student reflections
Student reflections

Teacher reflections

The vision

Thanks must go to my colleague, Science teacher, Jason McGarry who designed, manufactured and operated the Shake Table for me.  There are some parts of this task which I will modify next time such as restricting the amount of tape and prestick can be used in the final structure and perhaps an additional step allowing students to rebuild their structure or modify it to improve it upon reflection. This will require a lot more materials on hand, however, I will also relook Activity 2 as most students did not really understand what was required here and some even skipped this step. I would probably give each group one of each material (toilet roll inner, straw and ice-cream stick) to modify and test strength as they did with the paper in Activity 1. I did not plan this and did not have enough materials available to change it on the fly. I would also look at using an accelerometer on the shake table to test the structure at different rates of movement.

Two things that stood out most for me during this process were:

  • Some academically weaker students took the lead during this task.
  • Some students continually looked for reassurance from me during the task, always looking for the “right answer”. There was no “ right answer” and they were scared to take risks… but this is real learning, right?!

Technology used

The vision
  • iPads or other tablets,
  • Google Docs,
  • Google Classroom.
Technology used

What's next?

The vision

Next time, I would like to collaborate on this task with the Maths and Science teachers, as the skills and concepts such as 3D shapes and Forces would make a great cross-curricular task. It was obvious that students learn best when they are having fun and when there is no formal assessment attached to the task. They learnt so much during the process.

Closing thoughts

The vision

We learn more from looking for the answer to a question and not finding it, than we do from finding the answer itself. - Lloyd Alexander


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