• Life Lessons,  School Leadership

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

    Just Ask

    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.




  • School Leadership

    How can Questions Prepare Students for the Future?

    FullSizeRenderI have always loved questions.

    My earliest memory of using questions in my teaching was about fifteen years ago. Grade 11 high school English. We studied Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Using a piece of blank 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper, I wrote in black sharpie the names of themes around the edges of the page, leaving the centre blank. Friendship, good, evil, life, death, nature, survival, rules, and so on.

    I set a timer for twenty minutes. Students filled the white space with questions about all the themes listed around the border. They filled their page with questions, only questions.

    The next step was to review their questions and highlight three that were burning, that fascinated them most. I collected the sheets. I typed up the three questions from each page into a master list. The next day I distributed the master list and students prioritized the list of questions from most difficult to easiest, or most pressing to least. This list of questions became the focus of our study of Lord of the Flies. Sometimes the students used the questions as writing prompts in their daily journals.

    We selected one question a day to work on together as a class. Big questions like: what is the meaning of life? We brainstormed on the chalkboard in crazy mind maps developing theories and tried to link them to the story. Sometimes one question lasted several days. As I used this approach in later years we often ended up going really deeply into one or two questions for the whole book.

    As a young teacher I realized my high school students in university prep courses could write well. All the technical features were there. I had very little feedback to give them on paragraph structure and word choice. Where the students fell short was in critical thinking. They were parroting back our conversations from class in their essays, often sharing my ideas. It shouldn’t be about my ideas. It should be about the student’s learning. A senior student’s writing may not have had spelling errors but when I went back to check it for meaning, it was dull.

    I wanted innovative students who knew how to question, make connections, challenge each other’s thinking. I wanted my students to be creative and critical thinkers.

    All students can generate questions.

    When I taught Drama I experimented with question improv games. Students created scenes on the fly but could only use questions when communicating verbally. Questions are inclusive, levelling the playing-field for students. If everyone asks questions all the time then no one feels shy contributing.

    When I first started teaching I thought it was my job to assess and evaluate the students’ answers. I’ve learned that the questions are far more important.

    In an age where anyone can access information, critical and creative thinking skills are vital:  essential skills for 21st century learners. From kindergarten to Grade 12, all students can learn through questions.

    Now when I visit classes I’m inspired by the use of inquiry. Kindergarten students are encouraged to wonder. Grade One and Two teachers are sometimes using an emergent lesson design that follows students’ interests and questions. Teachers are creating the conditions for intentional interactions.

    A number of the teachers at my school are curious about the impact of inquiry on student achievement. I can see it’s igniting the teachers’ love of learning and bringing teachers together in new ways to collaborate on how to help students generate and explore their questions.

    As a school leader I want to use questions more too.

    Our staff learning sessions are organized by using questions as agenda items. I try to include a couple questions on the weekly memo. Last week the question for student well-being was: how can we support our students in learning how to develop and maintain friendships?

    Questions promote reflection and encourage collaboration. Questions celebrate diversity, inviting multiple perspectives. How are you using questions as a teacher? As a leader? As a learner?

    From technology to psychology, questions are revolutionary. Maybe the answer to “what is the meaning of life?” isn’t in the words at all, but in the question mark itself. We are all searching.

    A teacher in my school shared this video yesterday. Questions inspire. So, how can we ask more questions in 2015?