Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wondering



































Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. ~James Baldwin


"I wonder if the blocks will fall down again."

I made this statement the other day as a group of kids were attempting to build a tower to the ceiling. They paused in what they were doing.

"I think they will because they get too high."

"Somebody keeps bumping them."

"The ones on top get too heavy."


I often think I'm at my best as a teacher when I'm saying the least, and especially when I'm only saying certain, well considered things. Instead of pondering aloud, for instance, I could have asked a direct question like, "Why do the blocks keep falling down?" a question to which I already know the "right" answer. It may seem like a difference without a distinction, but when we ask questions like this, ones to which we already know the answer, even if we do it with a gentle high-pitched voice, we've made ourselves into testers and our children into test takers.

"What color is this?"

"What letter do you see?"

"How many marbles are in the bowl?"


I know it's a fun game for some kids, just like some of us adults enjoy taking tests, but for others, this kind of ad hoc grilling adds an entirely unnecessary level of stress, not to mention the fact that it often rips an engaged child right out of her own process of scientific testing, turning her in a moment from tester into test subject. Instead of following his own inquiry, he's the focus of someone else's.

It's usually best to say nothing at all, and the longer I've been teaching, the more my mantra has become, "Shut up, Teacher Tom," but when I do decide to verbally interject myself into the children's play, I really like the "I wonder . . ." construct. For one, it's not a question demanding an answer: children can choose to respond to it or not. Those who enjoy the give-and-take of Q&A will hear it as a question anyway, while those less inclined to performing on my cue can take it or leave it. 


But more importantly, I think, is the space that "I wonder . . ." leaves for children to take up the wondering on their own. 

Particularly satisfying is when I remember to make more philosophical, open-ended statements. 

"I wonder why squid live in the water."

"I wonder what will happen if I knock over that building."

"I wonder if I could climb onto the roof of our school."

Sometimes it sparks remarkable conversations, speculations about nature, social dynamics, physics, and physicality. Sometimes not. The underlying point I think is not the specific things we say after the words "I wonder . . ." but rather the role-modeling of the inquiry itself. When we make these statements aloud, children hear us engaging the world as life-long learners, as critical thinkers, as philosophers, as people who still don't have all the answers. It reveals us in our proper role in this world that is far more often gray than black or white: it teaches the habit of taking a stance in life not as a mere test taker, but rather as a tester, which is what lies at the heart of a true education.


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3 comments:

Mama J said...

Hi Tom!
I'm a new reader but I've enjoyed what I've read so far :0) I also have been trying to use the "I Wonder..." inquiry with our prek children after reading about it being used in the Godly Play curriculum. I love your description of the pros & cons & plan to link this post in my blog if I may: countrysideplayschool.blogspot.com
Thank you!
Miss Shannon

Teacher Cindy In CA said...

FANTASTIC blog post Teacher Tom!

Teacher Tom said...

@Mama J . . . I'd be flattered.

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