Passion and curiosity can’t happen ‘on demand’! or 'What do the 'shoulder shruggers' need?'

As many readers of this blog know, I have been busy exploring various approaches to personalized inquiry in schools. This has been one of my own significant ‘inquiries’ over the last few years. Providing more personalized inquiry opportunities for students is certainly gaining in popularity and momentum and happens in various ways through such approaches as genius hour, innovation days, itime, etc. Each year, I learn many new lessons about how to make these opportunities work more effectively to ensure high quality, rigorous learning while providing choice and flexibility. Two comments in recent times have given me pause for thought. The first came from a child - not from a school I have worked in - but one that is obviously making efforts to personalize learning. The children have all been given the opportunity to do a ‘passion project’. They have 4 weeks and are using some class time and some homework time to complete it. They have simply been told to ‘investigate their passion’ To be fair, the school does not seem to have a strong, explicit inquiry program so she may well felt more equipped and connected if it had. Regardless, it's not the first time I have heard a child say… “But I don't really HAVE a passion, I don’t know what to do!” Far from being excited by the prospect of investigating something of her choice, this 11 year old was floundering - grasping at random ‘topics’ her teacher had selected and shrugging at any suggestions I made related to some of her (admittedly limited) interests outside of school.

The second comment I heard was from a parent following a talk I gave recently where the focus was on ‘wandering and wondering’ with your child and the delight and power of young children’s questions. At the end of the talk she said her own child asked lots of questions and was a keen, curious learner at home…but when it came to “discovery time” at her son’s school, he was often ‘stuck’ and did not know what to do – he also felt rushed to pick something to work on for the session and expected to suddenly ‘switch on’ his curiosity. I sensed a few problems with the way these sessions may have been run but did not take that further. What I DID say was that like all learners, we can’t expect kids to be curious ‘on demand’ .

Passion, strong interest, curiosity, a desire to find out or learn to do something new or better….these are the driving dispositions of personalized inquiry. Some children almost spill over with enthusiasm and an eagerness to pursue something while others - well not so much. So, what do they need? What do the ‘shoulder-shruggers’, the ‘I dunno’s’, the “I’ll do what he’s doing” kids need ... in order to be more authentically engaged in experience of personalized inquiry?

  1. Time. Rather than seeing the foci for itime/genius hour as something to work on in dedicated sessions – encourage kids to build a bank of possibilities throughout the year. Researcher’s notebooks, wonderwalls, ideas boards, etc. allow the learner to collect their own questions and interests as they arise – rather than ‘on demand’. Gradually building a collection of possibilities gives the students something to ‘dip into’ when they have an opportunity to launch into a new journey of inquiry. Curiosity – even passion – as dispositions that need to be nurtured as part of a wider classroom culture.
  1. Inspiration. Part of the teacher’s role is to be ever on the look out for stimulating, interesting questions/issues/events that might pique interest and be worth pursuing…share these with the children and create a bank of wonders for those students who might need that extra support. Websites like are excellent resources. Ted talks, short video clips, articles - can all provide great springboards for interest.  Teachers who consistently model their OWN enthusiasm for learning, finding things out and who show excitement about the range of things kids themselves are interested in go a long way to providing an inspiring atmosphere for inquiry. And while we encourage children to become passionate learners – let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by making children feel that if they are not PASSIONATE about it, it's not worthy! A thoughtful, even reserved interest may be enough to provoke a quality investigation. Once underway, itime or its equivalent can generate its own energy as children gain ideas from each other. Have students share their investigations in small groups, conduct gallery walks, keep public lists and charts of the ideas they have explored – peers inspiring peers.
  1. Breadth. Beware the dreaded ‘topic’… itime investigations do not have to involve students inquiring into a random topic (eg: panda bears, formula 1 racing) …they certainly may…but they may also be an opportunity to improve a skill or learn a new skill, to work on an action plan, to canvas people’s opinions about an important issue, to create make and build. If students think of a ‘project’ the way many of their parents experienced a ‘project’ it is no wonder they can’t get past simply choosing a topic. The best personalized inquiries are also seen by students and teachers as an opportunity to ‘build their learning muscle’ - it’s so much more than the content.
  1. Forethought.   Many of the more successful personalised inquiry programs I see, really scaffold students thinking before, during and after their investigations. Students complete proposals (careful not to make them too arduous!), or keep researcher’s notebooks, and conference with peers and teachers to gain support and advice rather than simply ‘coming up with a topic’.
  1. Trust: One of the struggles we have as teachers is our own tendency to judge the choices that children make. We give them a choice – but we can also make it pretty clear when we disapprove of the choice! Perhaps this is why some are tentative to say what they want to explore. Of course there will be some things that won't be appropriate for investigation – and criteria for that can be worked out with the class. But we need to be mindful not to shoot down their interests because we might not judge it worthy of spending time on. The best teachers I see know how to take that child's desire to learn about (eg soccer) and help them develop a question or a focus for investigation that stretches thinking without devaluing their interest (eg: How has the game of soccer changed in the last 50 years – is it a better game now than it was?Why?). Spending time in thoughtful conversation with children who need that extra support is vital. Just as we conference with students about their reading and writing – so too should we about their researching. This is not ‘teacher free’ learning!

Providing opportunities for true, personalized inquiry as part of our classroom program can be a wonderful way to support the growth of the learner.   But if we expect them to ‘turn on the curiosity’ for one session a week without a broader culture of inquiry and the necessary time for reflection and inspiration, well…I guess we can expect our fair share of ‘cut and paste’ posters and half-hearted powerpoint presentations.

How do you encourage and sustain authentic passion and curiosity in your classroom?

Just wondering…

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 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 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……