Curiosity & Adventure Spiral

Sparking Curiosity: Seven Approaches to Inquiry in School and in Life

1) Begin with a question

Why does the moss cover parts of the tree trunk? Inquiry is as simple as a single question. When we see the world through questions we welcome learning into our lives. It is easy to say that children are naturally curious, but why are some children more curious than others? Why do some six year olds ask about moss on the tree and others didn’t even notice the tree?

Inquiry begins with a question, yes–but where do questions come from?

Pablo Picasso said “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” In the Information Age questions are more important than ever. How often do you ask questions? What impact do your questions have on what you need to know or what you do next?

Someone once told me about a book called Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. Are questions really so powerful?

This week I’ve been thinking about how we can create the conditions for curiosity:

  • Attention and focus: Like the girl in the picture, questions are often found when we pay attention to details. I try to look for questions with more enthusiasm than I look for answers.
  • Engagement: Writers often say “write what you know.” But I prefer the twist that says, “write what you’re interested in then go out and know it.” Where there is engagement, there are questions!
  • Practice: Ask questions every day. It can be a mind flip to ask questions and it takes time to be able to develop good ones. I find I need to ask a dozen (or more) questions to get to one really good one.

Before I can ask a question I need to pay attention, I need to be engaged and interested, and I need to know what a good question looks like.

2) Ask more questions over time

My friend Tom shared with me a project he used with children to spark curiosity about trees. First he made some kits with magnifying glasses, tape measures, paper/pencil, etc. Then students selected a tree to track for the year, noting their questions and observations as the seasons passed.

He said the questions started with the obvious ones like what kind of tree is this? How big is it? How would I describe it? Then the students went deeper to ask what insects live in this tree? Which birds visit this tree? Why is my tree different from my classmate’s tree?

What started as a simple task turned into an inquiry into trees, developing the children’s appreciation for biology and an understanding of learning.

Tom calls it “OGY”–the last three letters in so many of the sciences. He says it like this: “oh gee why?”

I love this. When children express an interest in something I can ask “oh gee, why?”

Sally says, “There is a squirrel in that tree.”

“Oh, gee. Why?” I’d ask. That one simple question has the potential to spark a multitude of questions. It’s a simple question we can use to spark curiosity in ourselves and in others.

I’ve found that the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Things change for me over time and my questions always get better.

Years ago I started with the question, “why is my blog named Sunshine in a Jar?” The search turned into my Master’s thesis and now my life’s work. As our understanding changes, so do our questions.

3) Share your questions with others

Last week we had an amazing conference for principals and vice principals in our school board. Alan November, author of Who Owns the Learning, challenged us to think about how we are using technology in schools. Here are some key messages from his talk:

  • “Global relationships may be the most powerful use of technology.”
  • “What’s the most important skill of a learner in the age of the Internet? Teach students how to ask the most interesting questions.”
  • “The real revolution is not technology: it’s information. What information do we need?”

The Internet is redefining our circle of influence. A number of years ago I began some research into my family tree. I wondered why my grandfather lived on an island in Georgian Bay in a lighthouse. Why does someone become a lighthouse keeper? Why were my relatives keepers for so many years?

Using my available resources, including family members and online databases, I searched for a year. Then I shared my questions and my findings with family. It turns out some of them had the same questions too. However, the best news was that someone had the French language skills I lacked to interpret documents that puzzled me. We found a fascinating ancestor named Ezekiel Solomon, the first Jewish man to live in Michigan, a fur trader who was a rival to the Northwest Trading Company and Hudson’s Bay prior to his capture by Pontiac (although he survived, his wealth did not).

I shared my questions again…and the questions that followed the first, turning it into a blog post. Now I was able to reach outside of my family and immediate circle to connect with ancestors across North America. At least once a month I receive emails or comments from people trying to learn more about Ezekiel Solomon. We share our findings and our questions. Last week I learned that his story is being turned into curriculum for the Jewish Historical Society of Michigan and students will be invited to visit my site to explore the comments from Ezekiel’s ancestors. What began as a post about my questions and learning has now expanded into a record of what others have learned, of how strangers are connected.

Like November stated, technology enabled me to develop relationships from learners seeking similar information, pursuing similar questions. The technology supported the sharing of information and generated new information through all the comments. This really excites me!!

And by sharing my questions, I opened the door for others to add questions, sparking curiosity in me for things I hadn’t thought about.

Sharing enriches learning.

4) Connect your questions with other questions

Make connections. I’ve watched a lot of great television and movies this summer. In nearly every crime story there is a scene where the detective lays out all the evidence, all the questions spread in front of him/her, and uses the display to generate more questions through the art of making connections.

I like to capture the questions, get them down on the page, or on cards, grabbing what facts I can and adding them to the mix. And then play like the detectives do, formulating hypotheses, the “what if” questions and “theory of action” statements.

5) Use the arts

One of my favourite quotes is from Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” The arts provide natural links to curiosity. The arts show a way to ask and explore questions from multiple perspectives. We began this post looking at inquiry through the eyes of a scientist, but artists are very similar. Artists require attention, engagement, practice, and “oh gee whys” too.

Innovation. Creation. Question. Each word ends in “ion,” a suffix related to action. I like to use the arts as an approach to inquiry because it is an active way to pursue an idea. Otherwise the idea floats around in my head without much progress.

I am so excited about the buzz in education about inquiry. If you are struggling to tap into your “natural curiosity” then bring in the arts. The arts will open inquiry up–it works every time for me.

This is a watercolour painting I made when I first started thinking about the phrase “sunshine in a jar.”

Sunshine in a Jar

Then I explored it again using collage a few years later:


And then again a few years after that (note how the ideas are changing as I change). By this example, the jar isn’t even part of the creation as I discovered the important part is what is inside the jar:

Art in a Jar Collage

6) Use a formal process

One of my learning goals this year is to develop my skills in facilitating group inquiries, or as we call them in Ontario education, Collaborative Inquiry. Last year I participated in an Intensive Literacy Project, a collaborative inquiry (CI) that involved three tiers of learning: student, teacher, and principal. It was among the most impactful professional learning of my career.

Jenni Donohoo put together a fabulous book called Collaborative Inquiry for Educators: A Facilitator’s Guide for School Improvement. This year I hope to work through the ideas in her book with the hope of engaging my staff in purposeful learning.

She outlines the process with four key stages:

  • Framing the problem
  • Collecting evidence
  • Analyzing evidence
  • Documenting, Sharing, and Celebrating

7) Document your findings

How we end a cycle is as important as how we begin it. Documentation is part of consolidating our learning. When I took singing lessons as a teen, after I had learned a song, my singing teacher tapped me on the head and said: “Now put that into your personal computer up there.” But singing was never about what was going on in my head–when I had truly learned the song it was less about technical precision and more about embodiment. To remember a song, I didn’t focus on the words or the notes even. I reflected on how the song felt in my body, where the notes moved and vibrated, how I had connected to the story of the song to my story. I documented the experience of the song through feeling, an intentional recall of the sensations of singing/experiencing the song.

Documentation is so much more than a report. It’s a way to let the learning set into your body the way a song does. Even as I write this post, documenting my thinking about inquiry, I can feel my thinking changing. Not a lot. But my thinking is simultaneously gaining confidence and asking new questions sparked from the experience of writing.

I love, love, love pedagogical documentation. The phrasing can be alienating but the idea is simple: document learning in order to learn from the documentation.

Our Grade One class last year learned all about responsibility through reading various texts. The teacher tracked the student thinking related to the theme on the wall (see pic below). Then the students visited the wall to reflect on their thinking/learning as the term progressed, adding insights as they developed. In the end the students made a video showing their learning about responsibility to share with the Kindergarten class. The documentation wasn’t just about noting what the Grade Ones were learning, but it was about using their voice and ideas as the spark for more learning–for this class and another class. Beautiful!!

Sample of pedagogical documentation.
Sample of pedagogical documentation.



  • Tom Semadeni

    Very nice, Jessica!
    Your # 2 above reminded me of this post … …. where there is one indication of the (rate of) changes in our flora and fauna.
    Probably a good question to ask kids, “Why do things around us change so quickly around equinox times compared to solstice times? The answers can show a profound appreciation of Earth’s seasons.
    It is sorta like “looking deeply”. A few days ago a forester came across a crashed airplane near Hearst that was missing for 23 years. At the time of the crash I was one of many volunteers who looked for that airplane …. for two long difficult weeks. I can remember suggesting to our spotters how important it is ——- to look INTO the forest not AT the forest. Similar to hunters who look INTO the screen of bush hiding game. Or fishers who look INTO the water. A habit that I kept from my early days learning to fly …. my instructors got me to look INTO the sky, not at the sky.

    Maybe that simple tip will help our photography too!

    I would love to hear your thoughts on how Donohoo aids teachers who aim to aid divergent learners … (learners of divergent thinking).

    I am looking forward to our Summit (26th?)


    • Jessica Outram

      Hi Tom!!
      Thanks so much for sharing such a complementary post and for so many great details in your comment. I love the question you pose. And “looking deeply” is the key with inquiry…going INTO the question. Great image! Our next summit is the 26th! Looking forward to it.
      In terms of divergent thinking and learning…she provides a good process for groups of teachers working together toward a common goal. In Collaborative Inquiry (CI), at least in the way I experienced it last year, there is lots of space for teachers to explore and individualize their work in a way other processes have not provided. In our CI, the teachers ended up each going off on some interesting paths related to our focus–all very different and self-directed. I hope to write a post about it soon.

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