Noticing and Wondering: Kicking off and supporting enquiry

Noticing and Wondering

(Special thanks to colleague Sara Soulier who helped me workshop this at a recent conference)

Could there be any more important skills than the skills to notice and to wonder?

The normal paradigm in school is to train students that what other people notice and wonder about is more important than their own observation and enquiry. Example: “Students, today we are studying American history from the industrial revolution to the present. Here is the syllabus of important topics, and when and how we will engage with them.”

The assumption is that what’s important here is the information and lessons we can learn from this period in history. Those are important things to know. But what about the ability to determine what is important and how to learn it? I would argue that is the more important “lesson” to be learned.

It’s possible to learn information without gaining the skills to determine what’s important and how to learn it. It’s not possible to learn what’s important and how to learn it without actually learning content. Content is a byproduct of learning to learn. The opposite is not necessarily true.

Recent research is showing that overly scheduled children have reduced executive function. We have growing anecdotal evidence from every sector that hiring “A” students from top universities guarantees mostly that you will get people who can follow directions very well, but who often cannot identify problems or architect and implement solutions. What can we change in how we approach education to alter our course?

Focus on learning how to learn as the primary purpose of education with content as a byproduct. But what does that look like?

In Luz Rothstein and Dan Rothstein’s book If You Make Just One Change, they argue that teaching children how to ask questions is paramount. I agree that learning how to ask questions is critically important (and I use their technique—and recommend their book and trainings), but the questions must be surrounded by an ecosystem that supports student enquiry. Asking questions is great, but what about the process of how you answer them? If we are too prescriptive in how students do that, we miss the full package.

Here is one example of how to initiate inquiry, and then to support development of entrepreneurial learners through how you frame the pursuit of the answers.

Noticing and Wondering
An exploration in enquiring and emergent learning

Invite students on a walk – around school, community, in nature. Invite them to quietly notice all that is around them.

After a bit, ask what people noticed. Share.
Examples might be: “I notice that the sky is blue” or “I notice that vines climb the trees”

Then invite participants to notice—and to wonder about what they are noticing.
Wonderings might include: “I wonder why the sky is blue” or “I wonder how vines climb trees”

Now, the questions leading from these questions could keep a lifelong learner occupied until the grave. And the learning would probably encompass most content domains in intricate and integrated ways.

But how might this turn into a learning endeavor (or unit, if you prefer to call it that…) in a school setting?

An individual conversation might go like this:
Facilitator: “So, what else do you wonder about the vines? Do you know why they climb trees?”

Wonderer: “I think they climb to get more sunlight.”

F: So why do vines need light? Trees do to, right?”

W: “Don’t they eat light?”

F: “Well, sort of. They use the energy from light to make food for themselves.“

W: “Wow, how do they do that?”

F: “I’m not totally sure, but I know that when we eat plants, we then get that energy from them. So we’re kicking off this inquiry unit right now, and you get to choose what you investigate. Would you like to start by investigating how plants make food from sunlight? Or how vines climb trees? You might be able to do both if there is enough time. “

W: “I think I’ll start with how plants make food from sunlight. But how do I find out?“

F: “It turns out knowing how to find out is just as important as the stuff we find out. Maybe even moreso. So, what are some thoughts you have on how you might begin looking into your question? What are some sources of information like that that you know of?”

W: “Pak Noan probably knows the answer to that question. I could ask him”

F: “I bet he would know. So people are a good source of information. And it looks like you know how to identify an expert. Where else can we go to find information like that?”

W: “I know, the internet…”

F: “That’s true. But how do we know if the information we are finding is correct?

And the lessons can go on and on. That last one shows a segue into how to find and evaluate information. The point being, you can get everywhere from everywhere.

So that showed how to get one individual to a kickoff question to look into. How do you get a whole class to that point? And how do you structure the unit from there? What are the outcomes, and how do you measure them?

I’m sure you all have some great ideas on those wonderings. Please share!

So that showed how to get one individual to a kickoff question to look into. How do you get a whole class to that point? And how do you structure the unit from there? What are the outcomes, and how do you measure them?

I’m sure you all have some great ideas on those wonderings. Please share!

Published by Aaron Eden

What's your Give? I think that is a critical question in everything we do. What value are we creating? The core of my work is educating for a sustainable future. Value-oriented learning. Community-integrated learning. Social entrepreneurship. Emergent, inquiry-driven, entrepreneurial learning. I've spent the last 20 years designing and facilitating face-to-face and online learning experiences and co-creative processes that help individuals and organizations develop the skills and attributes to transform themselves and the world. I have extensive experience in instructional and learning experience design, innovation, and technology spaces.

8 thoughts on “Noticing and Wondering: Kicking off and supporting enquiry

  1. Great article. I have recently written one myself about taking notice and wondering. Asking questions is important but, as you say, the climate of inquiry is also important. I like the way you have helped one learner take the step from questioning to investigating. Questioning is one thing, but the desire to know and effort to find out are equally important.


  2. Reblogged this on Norah Colvin and commented:
    I have written previous posts about the importance of nurturing the ability to wonder in young children and in ourselves, for example here, here and here. It is always a delight, then, to come across a post that expresses ideas similar to, but extending, my own.
    This post by Aaron Eden on Edunautics, Exploring a World of Learning questions whether there could be any skills more important than noticing and wondering. He says that in school students are generally told to think and wonder about what someone else (the teacher, the curriculum writer, the policy maker) thinks is important.
    Eden argues for the importance of learning to learn; of learning to identify what is important and of understanding how to learn it. He promotes developing an environment of questioning and suggests ways of extending students’ learning through participation in genuine inquiry based upon their own wondering and questioning. His suggestions help make the process more explicit, and therefore possible, for teachers to implement.
    Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts.


  3. Aaron, This is tremendous. I’m reminded of the book “How To Be An Explorer Of The World” by Keri Smith. Architect and Art Institute of Chicago educator Linda Keane put me on to that book.

    But I’m also reminded of the Middle School Class I used to teach called “Connections.” Here’s a link to a paper I presented at the Industrial Designers’ Society of America a few years ago. The paper outlines the basis for the course.

    Finally, I’m also reminded of a comment from a fellow classmate at a course I took at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking. We were working through course work on “Writing to Learn” and one of the premises of the institute is that we write not merely to demonstrate learning, but to actively engage in learning for ourselves…to figure out what we think/mean. A huge part of what the institute is based upon is informal freewriting: just writing down what’s going through your mind based upon a prompt or nothing at all. One of my classmates, as we were discussing the benefits of such writing, commented that it was like “lingering at the point of wonder.” I’ll never forget it, and I think it applies here. To hold, to wait, to wonder…to not seek the easy answers but to always revel in the questions themselves. That’s the essence of learning. But you know that.

    If you have time to read my short paper above I think you’ll find we’re of similar minds. Thanks for your blog. It’s a great read.


    1. Garreth – I just came across your comment again and read your paper. I just love the driving questions you pose as the basis of all learning: “Why are things the way they are? How can I/we make them better?” To me this is the essence of humanness. If we evaluated our teaching interventions (and we are intervening) as either augmenting or hindering the internalization and expression of these questions, it would change practice drastically from the norm. Thanks for sharing that!

      Liked by 1 person

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