“Children are learning about big ideas but they are also finding out about themselves and others in their community. ” (Jo Fahey, p. 27)
I’ve been spending some time reading through Jo Fahey’s recently released book, Ways to Learn Through Inquiry: Guiding Children to Deeper Understanding and reflecting on inquiry in the early years. It’s reminded me that we have so much to learn from the littlest inquirers in our schools. They come at inquiry from a place if pure openness. They don’t worry about saying what they think as they explore; they just say whatever comes to mind as they construct meaning, sort out differences and confirm or discredit their assumptions about the world, themselves and each other. It was timely that I happened to be observing in an SK classroom very recently. What I saw and heard brought the pages of Fahey’s book to life for me.
The teacher had planned a preparing provocation to have learners connect with their new unit of inquiry exploring the concept of shelters. The learning engagement involved learners working in small groups to explore, sort and categorize a collection of images (depicting various types of shelters, homes and habitats). The criteria for the task was that each group needed to work as a team to agree on how to sort the images into groups and then name their groupings. Students quickly set off, pouring over the images. I was very curious to see what each group would decide and how they would go about getting there. As I wandered the room kid watching, I happened upon the following exchange, as a group of students began to sort their images as “structures” and “not structures”:
A: This is not a structure. (Holds up a picture of a coral reef.)
B: How do you know?
A: Because no one put it there.
B: Well then who put it there?
A: I don’t know but it’s just there. No one built it.
B: What about the tree? (Holds up image of a tree.)
A: The bird did it.
B: Birds don’t make trees.
A: But they build in them.
Later on in the lesson, students shared their sorting categories with each other and discussed why they chose to label them as they did. When the group including the two students who had the above exchange shared, their sort still included two categories: structures and not structures. As the students went on to define their categories they indicated that images were “not structures because no one decided what they would look like.” Those pictures included in the structures category were there “because they’re not built out of the same things. Someone put them there and people live in them and some are for animals.”
The dialogue between these students and the level of thinking amongst them was so rich with inquiry. By the end of the lesson the students had a theory and a definition to begin developing their inquiry into the concept from. They were already engaged in the process of attending to differences right from the onset of the inquiry as they sorted, classified and reached consensus.
After reflecting on the lesson with the teacher afterwards, we both agreed that while the learners made some significant connections, they also had some misconceptions that could be further tended to through the inquiry process. While no direct question was asked of the teacher, several avenues for deeper inquiry were apparent and could be explored further:
– the idea that a shelter is only a built structure
– an inquiry into how coral reefs are made and how they do or do not provide shelter
-man made shelters vs. natural shelters
-shelters for people vs. shelters for animals
The possibilities could go on! And that’s the point. Providing constructs to facilitate inquiry leads to infinite possibilities for learning. The hardest part is getting out of the way and taking the time to learn from the learner – even the littlest learners!