Expecting the unexpected

I am just loving my regular dose of “Inquire Within.”   What a wonderful way to share the thinking and experiences of inquiry teachers around the world.    Sometimes I will read a post before walking into a planning meeting or beginning a  teachers’ workshop  and  I notice the way that post influences the direction of the conversation or prompts a question I had not intended  or expected to ask.    In other words, the “new information” I gain from the blog can lead my teaching onto a new, unexpected path – and often a much more rewarding one!

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the “unexpected” lately.   When I ask teachers to share their experiences of really successful inquiry with children,  it is fascinating how often they share something they HADN’T planned.  Also intriguing is the almost ‘confessional style in which these stories are shared…as if there is some kind of law being broken.  You all know the one…. “well, my kids and I ended up spending an hour researching spiders after we found one in the classroom.  We were supposed to be doing our inquiry unit/math session/writing workshop  but, well, it just took off.   It wasn’t really what I was supposed to be doing….”

Why does a sense of ‘guilt’  often accompany these stories ?

For me, inquiry based learning is – in part at least – about the permission we give ourselves to respond to the questions, interests and provocations that so often arrive on our classroom doorstep.   In a year 2 classroom recently, I watched as a teacher made use of the children’s fascination with the “spitfires” (saw- fly larvae) that they noticed in clumps on the eucalyptus trees in the playground.  The children had returned from recess filled with stories, questions, accusations, myths and theories about these strange creatures.   This was supposed to be a math workshop but within minutes, the board was covered in children’s questions about spitfires.  The teacher quickly set up a “here’s what we think now” chart to record some of the initial responses to the questions.   This was followed by a discussion about the best way to find out more.   For the next thirty minutes the classroom was buzzing with Google searches, letter writing, drawing  and some children venturing back into the yard to take a closer look.   Here was a small but powerful spontaneous inquiry in action.   The school caretaker was even called in to offer his understanding of the creatures infesting the gum trees!

In the end, some questions were answered and some new ones were formed.  But the most powerful moment in this learning experience was the reflection:  What did we learn? How did we learn it? What did we do? Why? What other inquiries does this remind you of?  When else have we done these things? What was easy? What was challenging?  What strategies did we use?   How was this learning like the learning we are doing in our main unit of inquiry?

Handled well and by a teacher who understands the approach , a spontaneous inquiry can help children become more attuned to and mindful of the processes involved in investigation.  By harnessing the ardent curiosity that is generated by real, everyday events we can show children how to be great investigators as well as honoring their curiosity and passions. .   Working through a systematic and planned inquiry journey is one thing (and remains very important) but being able to put, as Guy Claxton calls it, their “learning power’ to the test in the unexpected moment may well be the best way we can see just what our students know and can do and be as inquirers.    And spontaneous inquiries can co-exist with long term,  ‘planned’  inquiries.  There is room for both and each serves the other.

So many opportunities for spontaneous inquiry arrive on our doorstep each week.  The curious object a child brings in for ‘news’ time;  the unexpected thunder storm, the fascinating photo on the front of the newspaper,  the natural disaster on the other side of the world, the equipment that broke down unexpectedly, the death of the beloved classroom goldfish, a moment in a picture book that leaves us spellbound, the construction work that has just started in the street, the leaves falling from the trees in the yard,  the spider appearing on the classroom wall…..

Great inquiry teachers not only expect the unexpected ….they relish it.  When was the last time you seized the moment?


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14 Responses to Expecting the unexpected

  1. kdceci says:

    Great post! I was just thinking about this as something came up during a visit to the park yesterday. We all had an encounter with a man who was displaying behaviors indicative of someone with mental issues. Students responded in interesting ways. Unfortunately it was the end of class, but we came back for a small discussion about people and reacting to them, which also led to a conversation about puberty and changes and mental disorders. Bummer it was the end of the day. I too also feel guilty when going off tangent, but it is those moments that are the best teaching moments.


  2. whatedsaid says:

    Welcome to Inquire Within,Kath! Great for us to read that an ‘inquiry expert’ is influenced by all of us. As teachers, we need to remember that we are don’t have to be experts who know everything and control all the learning… we are part of the community of learners in our classrooms too.


    • @dwyerteacher says:

      It is really great to see how diverse the group of bloggers here at iInquire Within is. Teachers, coordinators, researchers. The whole gamut. All we need know are some students…

      Kath, I love this post. It echoes most of the research I have been doing myself. I relish the fluid approach to inquiry, and it is my favorite part of being a teacher! Interestingly, my interest in inquiry as a fractal and complex processes started with your workshop at Tokyo International School. You told us to embrace the fogginess. I loved that statement and it has taken me to strange and wonderful places. I never would have predicted a year and half ago that I would be studying Chaos Theory, Complexity Science and its implications for education.

      I guess what I am trying to say is, Thanks!


  3. Faige Meller says:

    So wonderful. Thanks for reminding us about an important “purpose” for teaching.


  4. ibdanmagie says:

    This posting reminds me of one of my favorite quotes that I have in my classrooms.

    “To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” Edmund Burke

    I unpack this quote with students to replace the word “read” with the many other things we do when inquiring.

    Living is learning, if we reflect on it!

    Thanks for sharing, Kath!



  5. Thank you so much, Kath, for this important reminder that we should be focused on teaching our students rather than teaching the curriculum. Responding to our students’ interests, concerns and questions often helps them to make connections that are more meaningful and relevant than would otherwise be the case. And for PYP practitioners, without wanting to suggest that everything should be included in the transdisciplinary programme of inquiry, central ideas that are open-ended and have global significance do often allow for students’ spontaneous and unexpected wonderings to have a rightful place in the current unit of inquiry; and for students to make connections with previous units.


  6. Meredith says:

    Keep writing posts Kath. I will always read them and get a little inspired!


  7. neeta says:

    It was indeed wonderful to read all this from the ‘inquiry expert’!!!!! You are right Kath, I have always wondered why as teachers we are guilt ridden when we veer from the lesson plan…..oh how I hate it at times,,,,,,,the villain that often raises its ugly head when we are ‘uncovering’ something interesting that has sprung up!!!!


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  10. tashacowdy says:

    Having taught students from preschool to Grade 5, one of things I love about the younger years is the flexibility to follow children’s interests, and the freedom from the burden of content that seems to blight curriculum as children get older. I love to see the look of total absorption and deep intent on a student’s face as they conduct a personal or group inquiry into something that has grabbed their interest. With very young children, sometimes I am not actually sure what it is they are learning, but I can tell by their behaviour and body language that whatever it is, it’s profound and deep and will stand them in good stead in the future. The challenge is to protect this spontaneity as the children move up through the school. Thanks for the reminder!


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