Spontaneous Inquiry

A few years ago when Kath Murdoch aka @kjinquiry came to present at my school  at an EARCOS Weekend Workshop on Inquiry Based Learning, I ran a teacher workshop on what I called Spontaneous Inquiry. Spontaneous Inquiry involves little teachable moments that happen throughout the day. They are easy to miss. More on that later.

What I realized after some years of teaching was that often natural and authentic inquiry was often being neglected. Why? Because ‘I didn’t plan for THAT inquiry to happen’. Or what about this one; ‘We don’t have time to do that!’. Sound familiar? What made me pause was identifying those teachable moments of spontaneous inquiry that were happening right under my nose. For example, in circle time. Learners brought in artifacts and wanted to talk about things that really interested them. These children had real questions. Good questions. With some direction I nearly always seemed to  be able to link their inquiries to our central idea or conceptual understandings. My unit planner was a plan. It was not set in stone. In the past,we rushed through circle time to ‘get down to work’. Ironic the things I wanted them to do later on was exactly what they had been doing prior! Inquiring!

So two things made me revisit and reflect on spontaneous inquiry this past month. The first was Kath Murdoch’s post at Inquire within. Great post, read it. The second was the great discussions and posts in the IB online workshop Inquiry I am currently facilitating. Fun stuff.

I’m not suggesting I ‘founded’ spontaneous inquiry or anything but to be honest I had never heard of these fleeting moments being called anything other than ‘inquiry’. I felt these were mini inquiries if you know what I mean but maybe not really connected initially to a ‘big idea’. I could not find any literature either. So what is the difference between spontaneous inquiry and inquiry you ask? Well, to me (and I could be wrong I am no expert) spontaneous inquiry is an inquiry moment. A fleeting moment that is hard to capture. A fleeting moment that may be gone forever if is not captured and acted upon.It is more than just a yes/no question. It may be a puzzled look, gaze or body gesture perhaps. Or combination of all. It’s quick. It goes unnoticed. It can easily be missed and near impossible to get back. This is where our circle time forum every morning was so important for  my little observational study. I would watch the kids, see how they acted. Sometimes disengaged (if they didn’t like the object a classmate brought) and that’s fine as we can’t always be interested in every little thing. However when kids are interested in something, especially a 6 year old you know about it! The wonderings were amazing. I moved away from the ‘hands up’ to speak your turn ‘rule’ that I think all of us grew up with (and I still do-yes, I am well indoctrinated) and instead gave the students the opportunity to guide their own discussions (with help sometimes of course)! I loved sitting there watching these inquiries burst out like fireworks, then sometime almost disappear into thin air.

My aha moment:  I need to do something with these! So I wrote up a few inquiries 3-4 wonderings the kids had and we would chose one to investigate further. This also helped to  decide what a good question was and we did some analyzing of the inquiries-reflection of what were you thinking when…….

So once we decided on one spontaneous inquiry to investigate, we would look at our central idea (and again with help sometimes) we would make connections to conceptual understandings.

So back to Kath’s visit. I was pretty excited and felt a bit scared putting on this teacher workshop on when Kath was in the house. (The slides represent everything you should NOT do by the way when using visuals so be forewarned):). Anyhow to my relief Kath didn’t attend but about 30 other educators from the Asia region did. What I had participants do was a mini inquiry. In fact, I used artifacts my very own grade 1 kids to drive the participants mini inquiries. All I provided was a central idea, a few concepts, lines of inquiry and a scenario. I provided lots of ways that learners could express themselves. Art products, digital media, recyclables…Participants in groups agreed on what inquiries they (or a child) might come up with the given artifact (they actually could choose as a group 1 artifact from several) and not only did teachers discuss how they would ‘handle’ such spontaneous inquiry in the scenario but how they would think on their feet and try to link it back into the unit (if they could at all). They took it a step further and actually demonstrated an understanding of the concepts and/or central idea from the artifact itself putting themselves in the learner’s shoes.

What occurred was a collaborative project, with one spontaneous inquiry.

The points I got across were:

  • Recognising spontaneous inquiry takes time
  • Realising once you recognise it or capture it-what next?
  • Supporting spontaneous inquiry values the learner
  • Looking for links in central ideas, inquiry lines and concepts
  • Be flexible!

About Jason Graham

I am a Digital Literacy Coach in Indonesia. I am from Vancouver but now call Melbourne home. I have lived in Indonesia for over ten years and enjoy sports and travel. I enjoy making stuff, photography and learning with and from others.
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2 Responses to Spontaneous Inquiry

  1. kathmurdoch says:

    Well – wish I HAD been able to go to your session Jason! Great post. When working with the “unexpected” or “spontaneous” inquiries that occur, I think the critical element is the teacher’s capacity to think ‘big picture’ both in terms of concepts AND skills/dispositions. A generous sprinkling of smaller, in-the-moment inquiries into the menu of planned inquiries across a year means more opportunities for students to experience the all-important ‘transfer’ of concepts and skills to a range of contexts. But is is generally up to the teacher to coax this transfer through careful and thoughtful questioning – and that means recognising the inherent skills and concepts within any inquiry moment. No easy feat – but a great challenge.

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  2. Jason Graham says:

    Thanks Kath! Honored that you replied to my post! It was such a fun personal inquiry. Still finding the right recipe to get at these inquiry bits and make it explicit and meaningful. I still remember your words at our in school- “Whats the big secret? Make learning explicit.’ That was a huge take away from me.

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