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January 1, 2016
Vol. 58
No. 1

The Wonder Years

Remember being young and having more questions than answers? Learn how to nurture your students' natural curiosity by making room for wonder.

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Instructional Strategies
When 1st grade students at Oakland Elementary School in Inman, S.C., have questions, they know where to go for answers. They could ask a teacher, of course, but more often than not, students will jot down their questions—What is a cornucopia? How can I stand up to bullies? Why do we have hurricanes?—and post them to the Wonder Wall, located in a central hallway. Fourth grade students are responsible for selecting a question, researching the topic, and then posting their answers for the entire school to see.
This simple activity answers many learning needs: the younger students learn that asking questions is natural and encouraged and they recognize that other students—not just teachers—can be reliable sources of information. The 4th grade students hone their communication skills by researching a topic and sharing what they learn. And teachers find that when they give students the time and space to wonder and follow their curiosity, students will extend their learning far beyond grade-level expectations.
Josh Patterson, principal at Oakland Elementary, believes that the staff has "a moral obligation" to cultivate the intrinsic hunger for knowledge that all children (and adults, for that matter) possess. The Wonder Wall is just one of many practices he and his teachers have instituted that give students opportunities to research and explore. "When students own their questions and the answers they find, they become deeply engaged, excited, and confident about their ability to learn."
Indeed, Patterson has noticed that students no longer fear admitting what they don't know. They understand that asking questions is how you gain knowledge. "When a panel of community helpers came to talk to us, many of our students didn't know what these helpers did," Patterson recalls. "Undaunted, these students proceeded to interview the helpers until they understood their jobs."

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Wired for the Quest

Asking questions helps satisfy the insatiable need humans have to know and understand, states Wendy Ostroff, a cognitive science and developmental psychology professor at Sonoma State University. Many philosophers talk about curiosity as the key to scientific innovation, she notes. "Asking questions is not something that we do on the side in school," Ostroff explains. "It's something that drives our lives."
Scientific research supports the notion that our brains are wired for inquisitiveness. In 2014, researchers at the University of California at Davis found that when we seek answers to questions we think are interesting, we are better equipped to learn and retain that information. A side benefit: we are also better at remembering the other material we uncover while on our quest for those answers.
"There is a reason you don't forget the things you are most curious about," explains Ostroff. "Curiosity releases dopamine," a neurotransmitter that helps improve noticing and affects attention and remembering. "When your curiosity is piqued, you're going to remember things more deeply."
"Having an inquiring mind is fulfilling and satisfying and we want children to experience that," says Susan Engel, psychology professor and author of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. When children give rein to their curiosity, they develop their own "tools of inquiry" and hone their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Engel's research reveals, however, that in too many classrooms, a child's inquisitive questions are seen as a distraction from carefully planned, teacher-directed activities. For example, some teachers rebuff students' questions if they detract from a lesson's focus with comments like, "We aren't talking about that now, Sammy." Others make a clear distinction between so-called "learning time" and "exploring time."
Still, Engel believes that most teachers would enthusiastically adopt practices that cultivate their students' curiosity if shown how. A great place for teachers to start, says Engel, is to simply ask: What can I do to promote an inquiry-friendly classroom environment?

Explore Before Explain

One way to stimulate curiosity is to flip the order of classroom events, allowing students to explore a concept before teachers explain it. "It may seem more efficient for a teacher to impart knowledge by lecturing," says Jeff Marshall, an associate professor in science education at Clemson University. But are students' minds actually engaged if teachers lecture first? Marshall doesn't think so.
For deeper learning, he urges teachers to allow students to grapple with ideas and skills within a topic before they offer any explanation. This approach, Marshall explains, creates a "cognitive dissonance" that spurs students on. Supplying learning puzzles ignites that motivation to learn.
Students often pose the puzzle themselves in Chris White's physics class at Seneca High School in Seneca, S.C. "We study static electricity in February each year, which is when it's really dry" and when students complain about getting shocked, he says. "They always wonder if the weather and cooler temperatures are the reason. So I ask them: 'How can we figure that out?'"
White builds in time for his students to "muddle through" their exploration of this and other questions before guiding them toward a solution—and he doesn't settle for pat explanations. "I enjoy challenging what my students think they understand," says White, who often tests their beliefs about certain scientific truths. "When we talk about the atom, about protons and electrons, for example, I ask: 'How do you know an electron exists? Have you ever seen an electron?'" White then helps students research the question and conduct appropriate labs until they can justify what they think about atoms based upon the phenomena they observe and the data they collect.
This type of inquiry-based lesson doesn't allow students to just accept what they've been told, says Marshall. Rather, it helps students move "from the perfunctory 'game of learning' and engage in actual learning."

Wonder-Full Projects

To build wonder into their lessons, Patterson and his staff at Oakland Elementary decided to overhaul the curriculum. Through project-based learning (PBL), the team creates lessons and activities—in math, social studies, English, and science—designed to guide students as they find answers to real-world questions or challenges.
Melissa McMahon, a veteran 1st grade teacher at Oakland Elementary, was initially leery about PBL, concerned that her students wouldn't meet learning standards. In reality, she says, "we end up covering more material and addressing more standards than we would have if we taught subjects in isolation."
Because the curriculum is integrated, "all the learning is connected," McMahon says, but adds that the real bonus is witnessing her students' full engagement. "Students want to learn; they don't want to stop."
Oakland teacher Emily Daniel has experienced that same excitement. She routinely encourages her 3rd grade students to take a lesson "outside the regular box of what is in the textbook" and follow their interests. One day, her students found a snakeskin during their outside lunch period and they "rushed in, very excited, eager to learn all they could about it," Daniel recalls. "You have to honor that wonder and give the time they need to investigate what is meaningful to them."
The students began by narrowing the parameters of their research. "We were learning about the six regions of South Carolina at the time, so students knew that, because they live in the Piedmont region, they should concentrate on snakes that are common to the area." The students learned that the snake must be growing because it shed its skin. "One student noted that it was like having to buy new shirts as [he] grew," Daniel says. And that observation led to another question: If this is just the snakeskin, where could the snake be?
Being open to juggling the schedule and curriculum to allow students to immediately satisfy their urge to know has required Daniel to be especially nimble. "You have to be a risk taker," Daniel observes. "You have to be a curriculum coordinator. It's not written for us."
It's also helpful to have a principal that is 100 percent behind teachers, Daniel adds. "We are fortunate that our principal trusts what we are doing in the classroom."
"Administrators [have to] to establish a culture that embraces the power of 'yes,'" says Patterson. "If we need books, I'll get them. If teachers need planning time, I'll hire subs." Administrators have to give teachers the support, freedom, and flexibility "to allow for exploring, discovering, creating, making, and thinking."

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Ignite Curiosity in the Classroom

At Oakland Elementary School, PrincipalJosh Patterson and his team of teachersinstituted a schoolwide effort to promoteinquiry and student-led instruction. Itdidn't happen overnight, says Patterson,who advises educators to start small.Here's a list of classroom-tested andstudent-approved activities.

Have students maintain a Wonder Journal. Ask students to jot down a question a day about the things that intrigue them, then they can select a question to investigate further. Have them write a short essay or poem about what they learned, and suggest they share it with the class.

Set up a Wonder Counter or Wonder Station in the classroom. Ask students to bring in objects that pique their curiosity to display on the counter. Once a week, have students choose an object from the counter and complete a Wonder Form. Students can draw a picture of the object or answer questions such as: What does this object remind you of? What wonders do you have about this object?

Help students develop good questioning techniques. Discuss "thin" and "thick" questions and give students ample opportunities to practice asking questions, especially of adults. During a PBL unit that addressed community, authority, and safety, students at Oakland Elementary interviewed police officers who visited the school. A "thin" question, students were told, would elicit a one-word response: Do you like being a policewoman? A "thick" question would require a more detailed response: What did you have to learn to become a police officer?

Tap students to become "experts" on a topic of their choice. Allow students to investigate an aspect of a lesson that intrigues them. Invite them to prepare a lesson on the subject and teach it to their peers.

Allow students to be curious together. Pair students who are more vocal about their curiosity with less forthcoming students. Ask students to work in groups to investigate. Research shows that curiosity is contagious!

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