Thursday, April 11, 2013

"I Wonder . . ."

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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Amy said...

I read a study a few years back, that began with the premise that parents (in this county anyway) are taught to continually quiz our kids, and maintain an all-day monologue to stimulate early language development. They continued that the more rhetorical and unanswered questions that went down everyday was actually training our kids to tune us out. That our voices became the background noise to their lives, and that that persisted into their teen years.

Anonymous said...

I read some great blogs by math teachers, and sometimes they struggle with something like this. The bloggers (and the readers) are intellectually curious people, and it's a challenge to figure out how to inspire that attitude in teenagers -- how do we make them curious about questions they can solve with math?

So, when I read this post, my first thought was that we need to keep saying "I wonder...", from birth through adulthood and beyond. I'm excited that you're laying the groundwork for students who will wonder how many miles per gallon they're getting or how many parking space a stadium needs or any other interesting questions they can dream up.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Whenever I have a bad day, reading your blog inspires me to try something new, to change my own attitude, to go back tomorrow and try again. I already say "I wonder..." but not often enough. This blog will be my reminder. Thanks.

Kathy said...

That's a very good point. I'm trying to quiz my kids less because a speech therapist suggested it since my 3 year old has a stutter (but will likely go away), and said not to add stress like asking questions. "I wonder" is much better...

Life On Planet Earth said...

Thank you so much for this timely post. I'm not a 'talker' and have been trying to figure out how to model an innate curiosity about the world without being overbearing. My daughters are 3 & 4. I'm going to start wondering more - thank you so much.

2ndheartmom said...

I teach college and this applies as much or more to me and my students. They have had a lot of the "wonder" drilled out of them by the time I get them. But it is never too late to bring it back! Thanks for the reminder.

Francine said...

I used this to great effect today. My son (4) called me to help him because his toy wasn't "working". I immediately saw why, but instead of fixing it I said "hmm, I wonder why..." then I waited. Barely 10 seconds later he answered the question, fixed the problem himself, and things were working again.

Thanks Teacher Tom, I love your blog.