What is the secret to creating a “Wonder Wall” that works?
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a Wonder Wall is a display in the classroom where children’s questions are recorded around a shared topic of learning.
I am a proponent of inquiry-based learning, where the basic cycle of inquiry revolves around “tuning in” to prior knowledge, asking questions, doing some research, reflecting on learning and perhaps taking some form of action. To be successful, the investigation should be child-led. The teacher’s conundrum, however, is that you’ve already got this unit you’ve planned. At what point does the child take the lead?
Up until now, my experience has been that children tend to be very bad at asking good/interesting/worthy questions about a topic they know very little about. The “questioning” stage is like an awkward bump on the road of inquiry that can’t be avoided, but you breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over and you can get on with “the actual plan”. Ask yourself, how often do you and the children look back at the questions the children asked at the start of the unit?
The Wonder Wall above was done with my very first class as a newly qualified teacher. The questions the children asked were surprisingly interesting (it seems they already knew a lot about space), and I spent loads of time typing up their questions and building a cool display.
- “Is there only one sun and moon on every planet?”
- “How does the Earth’s atmosphere stay together?”
- “How was the rocket invented?”
As pleased and proud as I was of my students, we didn’t really spend any time investigating the impact of gravity on the Earth’s atmosphere or the history of space travel.
This year I took a different approach to the “questioning” stage. Instead of having a lesson where I get the children to write down all the questions they have about a topic, I spent more time “tuning in” and teaching some basic knowledge about the human body, our first unit. Every so often, a child would ask a really good question, and I would fight hard the temptation to answer it there on the spot. “That’s a really good question! Write it down and we’ll come back to it later,” I would say.
Some questions they asked:
- “Is it possible to eat too many vitamins and minerals?”
- “What happens if your body doesn’t get any energy or sleep?”
- “How does your brain control your body?”
And this time we really did go back to them. Each child chose one question from our Wonder Wall and did some in-depth research on it. Eventually they would come to me faces glowing: “Ms. Piipponen, I’ve answered my question!” The ownership of the questions made for very engaged learners.
I was pretty smug by that point. However, what happened in the next unit of inquiry was something quite unexpected.
I have been seeking to create a more participatory classroom environment, where there is a low threshold for children’s voices to be heard and for children to be able to take action. I have used the Storycrafting method with the class (see here and here, and if you speak Finnish, you will find plenty of other references to sadutus within this blog), taken the time to listen to children, and strived to be reflective about how my own actions as a teacher inhibit or enable children’s participation. Part of this has been to set up a classroom environment that is managed and “owned” by all of us.
I made a small change to the way I managed my Wonder Wall. Instead of laboriously collecting children’s questions from my own files or having an awkward pile of sticky notes, I put out some paper and pens in a space where there is a lot of footfall. I showed it to the class at the end of one lesson, and that was all I did.
Next thing I knew, I had an explosion of questions.
At the start, the questions were relevant to the unit we were studying, Finland. But soon other kinds of questions started to creep in.
“I want to ask a question about how my hair grows. I’ve noticed that when I put it on a pony tail, some hairs are longer and some are shorter. Can I put my question on the wall?”
I tried to explain that the Wonder Wall was meant to guide the learning about our current unit, Finland. We finished with the human body in the last unit. However, my student persisted. Twice more she came to me to ask for my approval for her question. Eventually I said yes, if only to get her out of my hair (pun intended). (Think about it: Who in your classroom decides which questions are allowed? Are there any questions that would not be allowed?)
Soon other “unrelated” questions started popping up too. Someone asked me were we going to answer all the questions on the wall. “All the questions! We’ll never answer all the questions, there are so many!” I joked with them, but inside I grew worried. How far could I let the students take this? They seemed more than willing to take the lead in directing the learning through our Wonder Wall.
If the paper ran out, someone would soon remind me to put out some more. I never explicitly carve out time for writing down questions, but somehow the students manage to sneak them in during transition times. And the children clearly discuss the Wonder Wall outside lessons, because first thing in the morning they run straight for the paper and pens. Honestly, they’ve been planning their questions during their free time? It’s clearly important to them.
We will definitely incorporate as many questions into our classroom work as we can. I will try to find ways to address the pile of “other” questions which do not obviously fit our current unit of work. Here is real child-led learning happening before my eyes! I’m scared I will accidentally squash it if I carry on without sufficient self-reflection.
What are your experiences of enabling children’s questioning in the classroom, at home, or elsewhere? You are “allowed” to share your experiences in the comments section below!
Primary School Teacher
Doctoral Student in Education
University of Eastern Finland
See also the Children Are Telling Research Network at http://www.edu.helsinki.fi/lapsetkertovat/lapset/In_English/frontpage/index.htm .