Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

What To Do With All These Clues? Call the Garbage Detective!

Observations and Inferences

Jane Baber | Published: May 31st, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 5th, 6th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts
  • Course Course
  • Time Frame Time Frame 1-2 class period(s)
  • Duration More 120 minutes


In this lesson, students play the role of a nosy detective, digging through a mysterious neighbor's garbage to make observations and inferences in order to solve a case. Using images and "artifacts," students create a character profile to show how their observations and inferences help them come to conclusions. This lesson includes optional modifications for distance learning. Resources for use in Google Classroom are included.

Essential Question(s)

How does "reading between the lines" help with drawing conclusions?



Students examine a photograph and make observations and inferences.


Students are introduced to a case to investigate—specifically, the case of a mysterious neighbor—where they must play the role of a detective to gather clues.


Students examine pictures of garbage to investigate and determine what inferences can be drawn from their observations.


Students develop a character profile in Padlet using their observations and inferences from the Explain activity.


Students present their character profiles in a virtual Gallery Walk.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Garbage Detective Observations and Inferences handout (attached, one per student)

  • Garbage Detective Clues handout (attached, one per student)

  • Garbage Detective Printable Objects (attached, one per student)

  • Plain paper

  • Pens, colored pencils, or markers

  • Sticky notes (about one pad per pair or small group of students)


To begin, display the photo of a detective character on slide 3 of the attached Lesson Slides. Ask students to look at the photo for a few moments, taking in what they see. After enough time has passed, tell students that when they were looking at the photo they were “observing” it. Ask, "What does it mean to make an observation?"

Explain that inferences are made based on context clues that we put together to elaborate on observations we've made. In other words, to say that this character is a detective is to make an inference. What is actually observed is that it is a figure dressed in a hat, overcoat, and glasses.

Display slide 4 and share the lesson's essential question: “How does ‘reading between the lines’ help with drawing conclusions?”

Display slide 5 and share the lesson objectives. Tell students that by the end of this lesson they will be able to:

  1. Evaluate how our perspective affects our understanding of information.

  2. Analyze information and make observations and inferences about a person.

  3. Use evidence to support understanding.


After students have practiced making observations and inferences, ask them, "Did you know that there are jobs where you need to know how to make observations and inferences?” Sometimes, making an observation and then inferring what it means is like finding clues. Ask if students know of a job where someone has to gather clues.

Display slide 6 and give students time to discuss and share their responses. Consider using a structure like Think, Pair, Share for this activity, where students first think on their own, then turn to a partner to discuss which jobs might involve the gathering of clues. Once they have finished their discussion, call on pairs to share their thoughts. It is likely that at least one pair will respond that detectives have a job where they would need to gather clues. If not, display slide 7 and explain that a detective has to make observations and inferences.

Tell students that their next task is to play the role of a detective in a case that needs their help to be solved. Encourage students to get comfortable and listen carefully to the details of the case.

Display slide 8 and read the prompt:

“You are in charge of your neighborhood watch, which means that you are responsible for making sure that your neighbors are safe and nothing suspicious is going on. A new neighbor has moved in down the street and has been acting mysterious. The neighborhood group has decided that you should dig through the garbage to see what you can learn. You will need to look for clues, and the way to do this is to make observations and inferences.

Display slide 9 and pass out copies of the Garbage Detective Clues Handout. Go over the clues with the class:

  1. This person has never been seen during the day.

  2. An eyewitness next door has seen a tall figure with dark brown or red hair leave at around 8 p.m. most nights.

  3. This person drives a dark SUV with an out-of-state license plate.

  4. The shutters on the windows are always closed during the day.

Ask students whether these are observations or inferences and how they can tell.

Share the definitions of observation and inference on slides 10 and 11.

Give students time to look at their clues and chat about what they think they might mean.

Ask students whether the ideas they have just discussed are observations or inferences. How can they tell?

Tell students that they still have some more work to do to look for clues.


Tell students that you are going to show them a picture of their mysterious neighbor's garbage. This is where they start to play the role of garbage detective. Tell them that they will start by making observations but should refrain from making any inferences yet.

Display slide 12 to reveal the photo of the mysterious neighbor’s garbage.