By Josh Patterson and Ashley Roberts
Marine biologist, conservationist, and writer Rachel Carson (1956) once stated, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
Over the past three years, the faculty and staff at Oakland Elementary School (in Spartanburg, South Carolina) have worked to implement a schoolwide framework of inquiry-based learning. Through the use of PBL (project-based learning), STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), tinkering/making, and the 4 Cs (communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity), we have collectively transformed our school’s approach to learning from a more traditional model to one of innovation and student-led instruction.
Fortunately, the students at Oakland don’t just have one adult who eagerly shares in the excitement of ongoing discovery and exploration—they have many. A large banner adorns the main entranceway, proclaiming in big, bold script that Oakland is a “School of Wonder.” This proclamation is not simply a cliché or rhetoric; it is a part of the school’s culture and learning community. As a school, we believe questions promote learning. When students are provided opportunities to discover and explore, questions naturally surface. If given the opportunity to research and uncover possible solutions or answers, students not only become relentlessly engaged but also passionately responsible for their own learning.
Working the Wonder: Strategies and Resources for Promoting Deeper Learning
Increasing the use of student questioning does not require a schoolwide effort. Through some simple but highly engaging strategies, any educator can promote inquiry and meaningful questioning. When planning lessons anchored in authentic questioning, the teachers at Oakland have found Wonderopolis to be a tremendous resource for engaging students and challenging them to expand their knowledge of the world around them. The strategies offered below can be utilized as stand-alone practices and activities, or they can be woven into a larger inquiry-based unit of study.
- Wonder Journals—It’s not uncommon for classrooms at Oakland to begin their day with a “Question of the Day” from Wonderopolis. Teachers use the text and pictures provided on the website to spark instant wonder among students. The students then record their wonders about the picture, text, or topic in their daily Wonder Journals. This is a great way for teachers to track students’ progress in writing and learn about students’ interests in order to plan for upcoming units. Student in upper grades can utilize social media by posting their responses to a class blog. Blogs are a meaningful way for students to communicate their wonders and learning to a broader audience.
- Wonder Walls—As a project-based learning school, our units are created around students’ inquiry and interests. Throughout various units, teachers create Wonder Walls to display in their classrooms. These walls are a purposeful space for students to collaborate as they explore information and processes within the unit. Teachers, students, and even parents are invited to help research and discover the answers to various wonders.
- Wonder Walks and Noticings—As part of a year-long study of seasons, our kindergarten students take walks in nature and make observations and noticings in their notebooks. Students then generate questions based on the things they observe, and teachers seek to connect student questioning to Wonderopolis. Within this particular series of lessons, the teacher connected Wonder #47 (Why do leaves change color in autumn?) and Wonder #1190 (Why do the seasons change?) to further students’ understanding of their wonders.
- Weekly Wonders—Oakland also hosts a Weekly Wonder segment on the student-led school news show. The segment provides a specific time for the entire school to wonder and share. After announcing the Wonder of the Week, students are encouraged to research, investigate, and answer these questions on a designated Wonder Board or on Twitter, using #OESWow. The wonders are often created based on a current grade level’s unit of study. (See an example of our Wonder Wall as well as other strategies for promoting wonder in the Wonderopolis educator’s guide)
Albert Einstein once said, “Most teachers waste their time by asking questions which are intended to discover what a pupil does not know whereas the true art of questioning has for its purpose to discover what the pupil knows or is capable of knowing.” As educators, if we heed the advice of Einstein, we must seek to provide space for our students to demonstrate their understanding. When students are given ownership of their learning through investigation and discovery, they not only guide their own learning but also become the expert within their own unique community of learners. Questioning, at its core, should not lead students to become passive consumers; rather, they should become passionate generators of information and knowledge.
To explore other ways to promote wonder in your classroom or school, read “Providing Space for Wonder: Fostering Children’s Natural Sense of Inquiry.” In the article you will find additional information on curiosity corners and standards walls as well as a video of our school’s Wonder Room.
Carson, R. (1956). Sense of wonder. New York: Harper and Row.
Josh Patterson is the principal of Oakland Elementary School. He serves as the cochair of the PBL action team with TransformSC, a collaboration of business leaders, policymakers, educators, parents, and students seeking to transform public schools in South Carolina. He is a graduate of Furman University and the University of South Carolina, a Class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader, and a South Carolina ASCD board member. Connect with Patterson on Twitter @ACE_Patterson.
Ashley Roberts is the literacy coach at Oakland Elementary School. She serves as the school RTI coordinator and has facilitated numerous workshops on the topics of inquiry, literacy, and differentiation. She is a graduate of the University of South Carolina, has a master’s degree in literacy, and is a South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leader. Connect with Roberts on Twitter @_my3boys.