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?