Sunday / March 3

Letting Students’ Wonder Guide Inquiry


Sometimes we are surprised by students’ thoughtful questions. To act upon them, however, we need very special qualities and preparations.  Let’s see what those might include.

This is what happened recently to second grade teacher Judy Frohman of Livingston, New Jersey, who began teaching a  unit focused on Earth’s Systems: Processes That Shape the Earth. Her unit plan, drawn from the New Jersey Core Science Standards, clearly identified essential questions (“How do wind and water change the shape of the land?”), understandings (“Earth’s surface is continuously changing”), and objectives (“Students will be able to compare the position of the continents over time using maps”).

She introduced the unit with pictures, videos and demonstrations of “Earth events,” namely earthquakes and their causes and movements of tectonic plates against each other (as tragically happened in Nepal in 2015 as the Indian subcontinent continues moving northward against the Himalayan Mountains).

Then, Jacob asked a question: “If so many people live in areas like California that are inundated with earthquakes, how do they build houses that will not be destroyed by them?” (Yes, Judy wrote in an email, Jacob most likely did use the word “inundated.”)

How would you respond to Jacob?

Home building is not one of your objectives, nor one of the essential questions. But it is certainly related to the effects of plate movements. Would you press on with your unit as planned or take a different approach?

What determines your choices at this moment?  The unit objectives? Students’ interests? Time? Something else?

Judy decided to alter course significantly and spend time with her students answering Jacob’s question. She helped them build models of homes they thought could withstand a quake.

First Model of Earthquake-Proof Homes Designed by Judy Frohman’s Second Graders

Barell 1

Students built their models, then subjected them to what she called the “shaker tables,” a tray that simulated an earthquake. They discovered that their homes would not survive.  They were too weak and collapsed with the vigorous shaking that simulated an earthquake.

Now what would you do?

Judy and her students went back to the drawing boards and constructed newer, better-reinforced model homes.

Second Reinforced Model Home

Barell 2

What differences do you see between these two models?

What do you think Judy’s students learned from this process? Here are some of their reflective comments:

“ . . . that if people don’t make strong buildings it wouldn’t be safe for anyone that is living in it and that there is no way to prevent an earthquake . . .”

“ . . . make the building and test it to see if you did something wrong . . . ”

“ . . . if there is a real seareese [sic] earthquake you could try to go in your bathtub or basement . . . ”

Too often we omit this most important, reflective aspect of learning, asking “What did we learn?”

Judy’s students loved science and they often remembered more about these kinds of experiments than other learning experiences while in third grade.

“Why do you remember what we learned in science more than other subjects?”

Jacob: “The experiments are so fun they just keep popping back in our minds”  (Why do you suppose?)

Zachary: “We do crazy things and it is exciting.”

Darcy: “I do the experiments again at home with my sister and family if I can get all the stuff I need to do it.”

Arielle: “It is my favorite subject.” [1]

As a follow-up to such an engaging, interactive learning experience Judy asked her second graders what new questions they had:

Samantha: “Are there different kinds of earthquakes?”

Zachary: “Can they tell how far down in the Earth the earthquake started? Since we learned about faults in the Earth, and how many earthquakes happen there, how deep are these faults?” (Consider the reasoning here! Searching for connections amongst faults,  quakes and depth of each. Who says second graders don’t think abstractly?!)

Mike: “How long do most earthquakes last?”

Now, returning to our original question: Why did Judy decide to spend so much time on Jacob’s question?

Judy told me, “Children learn best when they take an active role in the learning process. When a teacher uses the children’s own questions to design lessons, she often finds that the direct result of this is an increase in student enthusiasm to learn the concepts being presented, and an increased mastery of these same concepts.”

Designing, testing, and rebuilding their earthquake-proof homes illustrate what Piaget is supposed to have said about learning—a process of “acting upon” content. That is, students have worked at different levels of intellectual challenge.  Such action helps us retain facts, ideas and concepts in memory.

Here is a master teacher in her element, one who feels comfortable with encouraging students to follow their own wonderings, providing them with resources so they can answer their  serious questions about nature.  And what helps her feel such comfort?

Judy exemplifies characteristics of a teacher ready to share control of the learning process with her students.  She is

Open to exploring many and varied kinds of experiences [2]

Comfortable with ambiguity, perplexity and intriguing situations

Thoroughly knowledgeable about her subject.

Recent research (Kaufman and Gregoire, 2015) indicates that our openness, willingness to explore a wide variety of experiences contributes to (or is an aspect of) our creativity.  In Judy’s case it opened a marvelous opportunity for students to wonder, hypothesize, test and learn about earthquakes.

Being open to inquiry, it seems, is closely linked to that which fosters our own creativity.

We can all become more like Judy Frohman as we gain comfort with our own sense of wonder, with our own questions about human relations and about nature.  These may lead us onto exciting new territories for further exploration and learning.


[1] Barell, J.  (2016)  Why are School Buses Always Yellow?  Teaching Inquiry K-8.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press

[2] Kaufman, S. B. & C. Gregoire (2015)  Wired To Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.  NY:  TeacherPerigree

Written by

John Barell is Professor Emeritus of Curriculum and Teaching at Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ, and former public school teacher in New York City. For the past several years he has been a consultant for inquiry-based instruction and creation of science/social studies networks at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. For most of his educational career he has worked with schools nationally to foster inquiry, problem-based learning, critical thinking, and reflection. Barell is the author of several books, including Teaching for Thoughtfulness: Strategies to Enhance Intellectual Development (1995, 2nd ed.) and Developing More Curious Minds (2003).

Latest comments

  • Thanks, Rae. Judy is an amazing educator and I am privileged to have learned from her openness to taking risks for learning with her children. Best, John

  • John; I really appreciate this information and the Socratic approach to learning. Thank you for including me on your mailing list.
    Warm regards; Rae

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