When we think of student choice in the classroom, we typically think of tools like choice boards. This tool allows students to choose how to demonstrate what they’ve learned by giving them product options. The ownership over how to “show what they know” is fantastic. But how often do students have an opportunity to choose their own topic for learning during school hours?
Students accustomed to “doing school” and having teachers drive the content. If we offer open-ended learning experiences like this, they are usually an extension activity for early finishers. However, when given the chance for students to choose their own topic, some don’t know where to begin or even have an idea to explore. On the other hand, some eager students frequently ask “I wonder…” questions, but they’re not on our curriculum or pacing guide. So we divert them. “That’s a great question, Ella! Why don’t you do some research after school and share your findings with us tomorrow?”
How to Manage Student-led Inquiry
Like George Couros said, “If students leave school less curious than when they came, we have failed them.” As students progress through each grade level, they become less and less inquisitive. I am certain that this is not just due to age, but due to the fact that teachers have not felt that they were prepared to venture into uncharted territory — off the curriculum map. There’s no time! I will fall behind on the pacing guide! That’s not in our curriculum! I only see this group once every 6 days! These are valid concerns — we’ve been trained to stick to the guides. While allowing students to learn about their own interests seems like an impossible feat, there are actually simple ways to make it happen in all classrooms. It starts with a mindset shift and 1 simple, interactive tool: The Wonder Wall.
Simply put, a Wonder Wall (aka “Wall of Inquiry”) is a place in the classroom for students to post topics they wonder about or questions they have. The wall can be as small as a poster, occupy the space on the back of a door, or cover an easy-to-reach bulletin board. All it needs is a title, directions, and some post-it notes for students to write on.
My Wonder Wall Fail (And How to Avoid It)
During my first year of teaching, I had six huge bulletin boards to fill. Without too much thought, I decorated one as a Wonder Wall to encourage students to ask questions. A few students wrote questions, but it quickly blended into the background and fizzled out. I didn’t have a plan in place for how to handle the questions- they weren’t part of our curriculum and I didn’t know what to do with them. Reflecting back, the same thing happened with KWL charts of the past. We listed many “wonder” questions in the “W” column, but even as we were writing them I knew which questions would be answered during the unit and which wouldn’t be because I knew our curriculum guide.
How to Make it Happen
A Wonder Wall with a solid procedure and a bit of structure would have solved my problems of the past. It provides an opportunity for student choice and inquiry without taking up a lot of class time. Here’s one way to make it happen:
- Prior to launching the Wonder Wall, introduce it to students so they know how to use it as a tool.
- Together as a class, brainstorm types of questions that work well for student-led inquiry.
- Share the process for the board up front.
- Ideas to think about:
- When may students post?
- How will they find answers?
- How often will they share their findings?
- What will happen once they find an answer?
- Ideas to think about:
Tips for Success
- Allow students the freedom to post any question (provided it is appropriate) instead of requiring them to write questions related to teacher-chosen topics.
- Carve Out Time for Research & Question Writing
- To make time for our Wonder Wall, I provide a bit of time a few days a week for students to explore burning questions.
- If a student discovers an answer or learns something new, they share it with an authentic audience. (See ideas for sharing below.)
- Help students learn to write follow up questions that (hopefully) begin to arise from their explorations.
It is empowering for students to discover answers to their questions on their own (although it needs some scaffolding at first). To really give students a voice, allow them to share their findings with an authentic audience. There are many ways to make this happen. At a basic level, simply use five minutes at the end of class for a student to share their question and the answer they found. Online portfolios such as Seesaw are a great step up from a quick share in class since students gain a larger audience and have multiple tools (camera, drawing, recording, etc.) for sharing their learning with the class and their family. And one step up from that is to create student blogs or websites so that students can post findings and gain followers.
These mini-explorations based on student-generated questions are the perfect stepping stone to a Genius Hour Project or Innovation Day. They also get students thinking and wondering, bringing back that inquisitive nature that is so important for the future. Why not try a Wonder Wall today?
Examples of Wonder Walls
If you think a Wonder Wall would work for you, you won’t want to miss EdCloset’s article on Effective Bulletin Boards, MadlyLearning.com’s thorough post on Making a Wonder Wall, or how to ramp up curiosity with Smekens Education.
More on Inquiry
Are you interested in learning more on inquiry? Then you’ll definitely want to check out EducationCloset’s Driving Questions for Arts-Based Inquiry and The Umbrella of Inquiry. KQED also has a fantastic article on How to Ease Students into Independent Inquiry Projects. And last, but certainly not least, is the amazing John Spencer who has shared 10 Reasons to Pilot Genius Hour this Year and Geek Out Projects.
Dyan is a third grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.