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September 10, 2015
Vol. 11
No. 1

Providing Space for Wonder: Fostering Children's Natural Sense of Inquiry

Instructional Strategies
Why is the sky blue? Who invented the toilet? Why do zebras have stripes? As any parent of a preschool- or elementary school–age child can attest, children are born with a natural sense of curiosity. It is this innate sense of wonder that will lead and support our students' lifelong journeys of discovery and learning. As educators, we have a moral obligation to not only allow for our students' inquisitiveness, but to also foster and support this powerful, often untapped potential.
Tony Wagner, in his compelling text Creating Innovators (2012), states, "The interest in and ability to create new knowledge to solve new problems is the single most important skill that all students must master today" (p. 142). Behind every problem solution or innovation lie questions and layers of inquiry. Although educators often claim to value and encourage student questioning, many times they don't know what to do when students ask questions. Should they spend valuable class time answering a question? What if the teacher doesn't know the answer? How does the teacher embrace students' natural inquisitiveness while properly addressing standards? If we truly desire our students to become lifelong learners, we must acknowledge that promoting learning through questioning is not enough. Students must have the opportunity to not only ask questions, but also enjoy the space to explore, discover, and uncover their innate inquisitiveness.

Curiosity Corner

Imagine walking into a classroom as a 2nd grader. In the corner of the room, you see all sorts of objects. You're not quite sure of their uses, purposes, or possible connection to each other. Additionally, you see various texts, chart paper, iPads, pencils, paper, and other items that invite your curious mind to discover and explore. The teacher in this classroom understands that the space for exploration starts in this corner.
Before every unit of study, our teachers create "curiosity corners," or immersion centers, to activate students' knowledge and encourage questions during this time of early exploration. For example, prior to a unit on weather, a teacher might display a thematic basket that includes a thermometer, rain gauge, barometer, anemometer, and a windsock for students to examine. These items, along with various texts and chart paper, help students make observations and document questions that arise as they explore, and this curiosity informs the teacher's lesson plan. Exposing students to weather instruments before starting the unit creates excitement about learning and encourages students to begin questioning what, why, and how each object is used. The teacher then uses their observations and thoughts to drive the unit's instructional purpose and activities.

Standards Wall

When students can see their learning progress and make connections to academic concepts, they are able to take ownership of their learning. As described in Learning in the Fast Lane by Suzy Rollins (2014), "standards walls" help students conceptualize their learning throughout a unit of study. With the academic standards and the unit learning goals in mind, teachers and students create and post essential questions about the concept that they derived from curiosity corners. For example, during a 2nd grade weather unit, students and teachers might create questions such as, "How can we describe and predict the weather, based on our observations?" and "What are ways that we can stay safe during severe weather, and why are these precautions important?"
By mapping out the entire unit and assessing the level of questions created, the standards wall serves as a beacon for planning individualized lessons around questions and concepts. Questions worthy of posting on the standards wall should be open-ended, deep-level questions that allow for exploration and reflection and are revisited throughout the unit. Teachers should reference Webb's Depth of Knowledge to assess questions and remember that the deeper the question, the deeper the learning. However, teachers should also understand that questions that include words such as "explain" or "evaluate" do not necessarily prompt a deep level of inquiry.
Prior to a unit, with questions already posted, the teacher displays the standards wall. Each day, over the course of the unit, the teacher revisits the wall to recap previous lessons, which helps students visualize what they have learned and how it relates to what they will be learning. As they seek to answer each question, student work and artifacts are displayed next to the corresponding questions. For instance, in a weather unit, a teacher might display weather journals, drawings of weather instruments, and posters highlighting severe weather precautions. Seeing their work as instructional exemplars helps students connect their thoughts and establishes purpose as they build connections to concepts.

Wonder Room

In place of a traditional science lab, a "wonder room" can help students collaborate, design, and explore outside of their everyday settings. (See our school's wonder room.) During a 2nd grade weather unit, teachers visited the wonder room with their classes to examine and develop various weather tools. Teachers set up a green screen, which students used to create videos of severe weather announcements as a culminating activity for the unit. The videos even had practical value: students throughout the school viewed these announcements to prepare for routine drills. Our wonder room's intentional space invites students into a place of investigation and discovery.
"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning." Years ago, Albert Einstein issued this challenge, a call to action to inspire us to resist the status quo and to not waver in our quest for answers. Most educators want our students to become empowered, creative, resilient leaders who can solve problems, advocate for others and themselves, and empathize with others. Such soft skills do not develop in a vacuum; like cognitive strategies, they must be taught, modeled, and encouraged through the questioning process. When students learn in an environment where questions are safe to explore, they progress toward becoming lifelong learners who ultimately investigate and influence the world to leave it better than they found it.
References

Rollins, S. (2014). Learning in the fast lane: 8 ways to put all students on the road to academic success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wagner, T., & Compton, R. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. New York: Scribner.

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