What makes us wonder?

The name of this blog 'justwondering' is an attempt to capture the essential ingredient of true inquiry - wonder.  As a young teacher, I recall learning of Art Costa's 16 'Habits of Mind' and being particularly enamoured with the idea that 'wonder and awe' could be cultivated as a habit...a way of thinking day in, day out.  I was, and still am, curious about those students for whom it seemed natural to approach the world with exactly this disposition – eagerly questioning, finding things ‘awesome’, intrigued and interested. Working with and parenting children has taught me a lot about wonder and I hope that it is indeed a habit that I, too, take into my daily life. Wonder can add such a richness to the day...in can turn a tedious moment in a supermarket queue into a fascinating social experiment, a frustrating interaction with a recalcitrant colleague into study of communication and a walk through the park with a 3 year old into a journey of delight and discovery.  It’s all about getting into the habit of approaching such moments with wonder.

Inquiry teachers make it their business to wonder and to invite and nurture wonder in their students. I have written extensively about questions and about the disposition of curiosity in this blog before but today, I am simply reflecting on the things that make ME wonder - and the implications of that for my teaching. The term 'provocation' widely used in inquiry circles is the perfect descriptor of the spark that activates wonder.  Inquiry teachers are expert provocateurs (hmmmm that doesn't sound quite right!) and they also recognise a provocative moment when they see (or feel) one. Recently, I spent a week noticing and recording some of the moments that made me wonder. In doing so, I was reminded of some of the characteristics of powerful provocations in the classroom. Here are some moments from my week of wonders…

An unexpected moment

One day, as I drove (crawled) to work along the freeway, I had the extraordinary experience of seeing no less than 7 low-hanging hot air balloons suspended in the sky before me. They were so close, I could hear the flame roaring.  My head was instantly filled with questions....what can they see from up there? Why is the flame intermittent? Why that shape?  How do they steer the balloon or are they at the mercy of the wind?  How do they avoid each other? How do they navigate?

This stunning provocation was of a grand scale. It reminded me of the power of a direct, inspiring and often unexpected experience.  While we may not be able to orchestrate such a stunning vision for our students, we have the wonders of the web to serve us up extraordinary scenes, images and clips every day.  Of course, there is nothing like seeing it for real but if that is not possible, have something intriguing on your screen as students walk in the room. You don't need to say anything.

The power of story

That same day, when I arrived at the school I was working in, a teacher was sharing with her colleagues the story of how she had been bitten by a spider the previous evening and the effect of that on her leg. We were all mesmerised by her story! No sooner had she finished speaking, the questions started flying. How did she feel? Was she scared? What did the spider look like? Did it hurt? What did the doctor say?

Never underestimate the power of a good story. Especially a story well told!  Narrative is highly engaging and by its very nature, prompts an audience to wonder.  Using story to provoke inquiry can be exquisite - whether planned or unplanned. If it is early in an inquiry, it need not be a detailed epic adventure...just enough to spark wondering and activate questions.

A problem to solve

I travel a great deal and often find myself organizing logistics in a hurry. That week, I had the awful experience of realizing I had failed to take time differences into account and now had a problem with how to get home in time to meet other urgent commitments after the trip. I needed to work out a solution. I spent a long time calculating and recalculating time, time differences across 4 countries, fare prices, journey durations, currency conversions....I was deeply engaged in mathematical and geographic inquiry…. I had to be!

Sometimes the best provocations are those that really do PROVOKE. They unsettle, they create tension, confusion or the need to resolve something.  This moment reminded me of the deliberate activation of tension to spark inquiry...a simulation (eg ‘Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes’) that has kids fired up with righteous indignation or simply a problem to solve - be it in the school yard or the community.  When handled well, tension and confusion are the gateway to great inquiry.


The passions of others – knowing what you don't know.

Later in the week, I attended a presentation about overseas student exchanges with one of my daughters. I was tired and not all that interested - thinking I had read enough of the material and knew what I needed to know. I didn't. After the initial presentation, a student who had returned from exchange got up and spoke to the group about his experience. This guy knew what he was talking about – and I realized there were lots of things we still needed to explore.. I sat up and listened...I wanted to find out more.

The authenticity and passion of an expert...someone in the field who knows their stuff and someone we feel can really trust can be the very thing that sparks questions.  Inviting an expert to share their passion with students can be a fantastic provocation for further inquiry. It can move us from thinking we ‘know it all’ to realising we actually have so much more to learn...or from thinking it's irrelevant to becoming interested.

Activating the senses

Anyone who has ever decided to paint a room white will know that there are, in fact, many, many ‘whites’!  For an hour this week, I experimented with white. I was fascinated by the way the same section of wall could look so different in different light. Painting small sections of my wall was sensory and meditative as well as intriguing.    As I played with the samples of white paint that day, I was, indeed, filled with wonder! It was only partly born of the intellectual challenge of selecting the right shade...it was also connected to the sensory, felt experience of engaging with the materials...the brush, the surfaces, the paint, the light, the smell, the texture. I loved it! I spend so much time in my head...actually DOING was just what I needed to help me know what I needed to know.

Some of the most inspiring provocations I have seen have been those that involved the senses.  Early years teachers, in particular, know of the power of materials to provoke curiosity and questioning.  A basket of seeds, beautiful to the touch, a pattern of glass beads on a light box, magnets and iron filings, an assortment of exotic shells....objects that provoke experimentation and exploration are the key to some of the most seductive inquiry moments in the classroom.

When wonder wanes…

After a week of deliberately noticing things that made me wonder it was fascinating to experience something that (momentarily) killed my curiosity! Even my best efforts to try to rise above could not lessen the impact of….

 a Saturday afternoon at IKEA.   

Here was, ostensibly,  a sea of provocation....but it was all too much. Overload!!!  There were, in short, too many choices. I found it impossible to get a big picture of where I was so I was confined to following meaningless arrows for fear I would get lost. I dare not dawdle and spend time at anything that caught my eye in case I got left behind.   And it was crowded and noisy. I was surrounded by people arguing about which bar stool to buy or vying to get the attention of the exhausted shop assistant. The space was physically cluttered –so it became hard to focus on what I had come to buy. In that intensified, busy, noisy environment, I noticed my clarity diminishing as well as my motivation. I could feel my energy draining and I longed to be out of there, in a peaceful space where I could re-focus and hear myself think.

I guess you know where I am going with this.  I think that sometimes our schools can be a bit like IKEA on a Saturday afternoon.  Perhaps in an attempt to make them provocative and stimulating (or simply through neglect) , we can create environments that render our children overwhelmed and bewildered.  Rooms might simply be too cluttered....too much stuff, too many subjects, too little time, too many kids in spaces that are too small and too noisy.  Too much going on. What I have been most conscious of this week is that my best wondering happened when I had space and time...and a provocation...often a single moment, a simple act that drew me in.

I want the teachers and kids I work with to see me as an inquirer – someone thirsty with questions and eager to explore. I don't need to know all the answers but I do want awe and wonderment to be part of who I am – just as I want that for the students and teachers with whom I work. The art of provocation is a joy to cultivate as a teacher.

What works for you?  What makes YOU wonder....?

Just wondering……