Time of Wonder

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By Mary Shea, co-author of The FIVES Strategy for Reading Comprehension

Wondering is the mind’s query to itself — questioning observed phenomena, seeking information about the unknown, or solving a problem or puzzle. It’s a natural force that drives learning from the first breath of life.

Effective teachers harness this energy in designing instruction that is meaningful to and differentiated for learners. Students’ wonderings are solicited, discussed, recorded, and organized as thematic explorations are introduced; methods and materials for answering such inquiries are determined collaboratively.

It’s essential that this opportunity for wondering is not hurried. Students need to marinate in the mental wandering that occurs. As Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (Koningsburg, 1987) states, “But you must also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything …. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It’s hollow.”

Some wonderings spin off into a life of their own as extension themes. The cycle is endless—much as natural learning in the world outside of school. The objective with wondering about a topic is to uncover the curriculum with students rather than merely cover it. Such inclusion of students’ wonderings makes each class’s approach to a curricular theme study specialized while also meeting similar broad goals and objectives; it makes teaching and learning real and purposeful — an adventure for the teacher and students.

To appropriately address students’ queries on a theme, an array of resources in multiple genres becomes necessary. Textbooks alone, with their succinct overview of topics, provide a base of common knowledge, but are limited and insufficient sources for wide ranging inquiry raised by students. Sets of related ancillary texts—ones selected based on students’ wonderings—can augment textbook units as print and non-print resources for inquiry-based investigations. These can include magazine and newspaper articles, Internet sources, picture books, chapter books, video, visuals (e.g., charts, images, graphs), original documents, and more.

The acquisition of facts and understanding of concepts are greater when students use multi-genre resources that respond to their unique wonderings, motivating deeper investigation and personal construction of knowledge that is relevant to learners. Instruction on strategies for learning content and literacy skills implemented across genres of texts offers practice in applying them with specificity in each domain of knowledge (e.g., using the FIVES).

The work of investigating and reporting answers is mostly collaborative, but also allows opportunities for individual explorations. All tasks are designed to be authentic — to answer genuine wonderings, stimulate creative and critical thinking, increase persistence in the quest, enhance meaningful interaction, allow interdisciplinary teaching and learning, and ensure community building.

To cultivate an environment where learners are engaged, invested, and continuously growing—where the work is about finding the answers to one’s own wondering as well as the collective wondering of the group, teachers must:

  • Bring the world of resources used in learning outside of school into the classroom
  • Allow collaborative wondering to influence the delivery of curriculum
  • Differentiate instruction to meet diverse needs
  • Establish workgroups based on tasks, interests, and talents

The art of teaching is reflected in the master teacher’s ability to facilitate this workshop of learners with an appropriate balance of sage on the stage and guide on the side.