‘I Wonder’ Questions: Harnessing the Power of Inquiry
Students are constantly asking questions. When does the homework have to be completed? What makes you think Siri understands what I’m saying? What causes the sky to be blue? Student questions can be amusing, insightful, and, at times, completely off the beaten path. The teachers at Crellin Elementary record students’ “I wonder” questions rather than field them one by one as they arise. This allows them to view the questions as a whole and use the information to develop lessons and projects that will encourage students’ natural curiosity.
WHAT ARE ‘I WONDER’S?
‘I’m curious’ is the categorical term that Crellin Elementary teachers use to describe the individual questions that students have about their learning. In the middle of a lesson, the teachers encourage their students to express their curiosity aloud.
Dana McCauley, the principal of Crellin Elementary School, explains how the process works: The moment when you are completely immersed in a lesson and the students are beginning to make those connections and they begin to say them out loud: ‘How are magnets related to electricity?’ What is the significance of this in this unit? ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ “Why is it that whenever we go to the stream, I see that green algae-looking stuff on there, when I thought you said you cleaned it up?” you might wonder. Alternatively, ‘I’m curious as to why the salt is melting the ice out there?’ “I mean, why are we putting that out there?”
“I wonder” questions are anything that the children are curious about—whatever connections are forming in their minds as they learn, they are expressing these thoughts aloud through “I wonder” questions.
ENCOURAGING AND HARVESTING STUDENT WONDERS
Teachers at Crellin use a variety of methods for documenting students’ “I wonder” questions and observations. Some teachers have them write their questions before assignments during writing prompts, while others simply write the questions on the board, and still, others may use posters or sticky notes to remind them of their questions.
When someone says something that isn’t relevant to what you’re doing at the moment, McCauley says, “you write it down and tell them they can come back later.'” “Write it down on a Post-it note.”
With a cover sticker that says, I wonder… “The important thing is to never stop questioning” —Albert Einstein, and then a line for the student’s name, Hannah has a colorful, sparkly journal to keep track of her thoughts.
Image courtesy of Edutopia
TIP: Encourage students to write down their questions in “I wonder” journals, and then use these questions to help you plan future lessons for your students.
The use of “I wonder” journals by fifth-grade students began after a regular learning partner, Dr. Dave Miller, realized that the students had far more questions than he could answer in the limited time he had to spend in the classroom. He handed out notebooks to each student and instructed them to jot down any questions they might have about anything. He is now using the journals to plan experiments for the students that he will be conducting during his time in the classroom.
In any case, students are always encouraged to question, wonder, and share their observations with their teacher and fellow students, regardless of the method of data collection.
CHANNELING THE WONDER
Every few weeks, teachers go over all of the questions that have been collected but never addressed because they were either off-topic during the lesson or more appropriate for a later unit in the curriculum. When teachers take a look at a group of students’ questions, they can glean information about where the students want to go as well as where they have recently been.
“They can serve as a clue to the teacher to ensure that no misconceptions are created,” McCauley explains. “You have to make sure that everything is flowing and that everything makes sense to them… Is it possible that they have a misunderstanding of the situation? Maybe they’re connecting on a level you didn’t even realize they were connecting on until now. As a result, it provides an opportunity for us to reflect on… how we’re laying out lessons.”
I wonder questions can also help teachers identify themes and subject areas about which students are particularly interested, as was the case when fifth-grade teacher Brittany German noticed that she was receiving a disproportionate number of “I wonder” questions about outer space. She then decided to make use of some of the available space in her next unit.
As teachers work their way through the “I wonder” questions, they ask themselves questions such as those listed below:
What direction could I take this?
What can I do to connect some of these ideas?
What can I do to make this relevant to my students’ lives?
What am I supposed to take away from this?
In addition, while “I wonder” questions can undoubtedly have an impact on lesson plans, teachers may also use them in smaller, more individualized groups.
“They aren’t always full-blown lesson plans,” McCauley admits. “Sometimes they are.” “Sometimes it’s a project that only one child is interested in. Some of the time, it’s more of a question that they need to look into further. Other times, it becomes a completely new project for the class or a group of children.”
LEAVING SOME QUESTIONS UNANSWERED
The following questions are written in a notebook entry titled “Space”: 1) How does one go about creating a black hole? 2) Why did those scientists create a black hole? Wouldn’t something bad happen to someone or would someone get hurt if they didn’t do so? 3) What would happen if a planet collided with the Earth one day?
It is common for students to have dozens or hundreds of questions, and for some, the prospect of having to answer them all can be overwhelming. Teachers at Crellin, on the other hand, say that they do not feel obligated to answer every question that is posed. This group’s goal is to contribute what they can, encourage students to take ownership of the situation and seek answers on their own; and most importantly, they want students to keep asking questions. Principal McCauley believes that the ultimate goal is for students to continue to wonder: “If people don’t ask themselves, ‘How would we ever survive on the moon?’ then that will never be explored.” Your goal is to pique their interest enough so that they will continue to inquire, with the understanding that not all questions will be answered. But that doesn’t mean they should stop wondering, because wondering leads to thinking outside the box, and thinking outside the box leads to critical thinking, which makes them critical thinkers. This is the point at which everything comes together for them as they try to figure it out and reflect on what they’re doing. That’s where all of the learning takes place—where that’s all of the connections begin to be formed.”