Strategy Share: Cultivating a Sense of Wonder with Early Elementary Students

The following post was written by 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Breigh Rhodes, a STEM specialist and elementary school teacher, after her expedition to Antarctica. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity for pre-K–12 educators made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Breigh responds to students’ questions about Antarctica. Photo by Tammy Wood

Scientist and author Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” During the first years of school, children have an abundance of wonder, or curiosity about anything and everything. I think most teachers would agree that a sense of wonder is extremely valuable, if not essential, because it motivates the desire to know more.

There is still a lot that scientists don’t understand about curiosity, but studies support the idea that we do in fact learn better when we are curious. For example, a study published in the scientific journal Neuron linked a mind filled with wonder to better learning and memory—identifying actual changes that occur in the brain when an individual is in a curious state.

After 10 years in the classroom, I can attest that children have a natural propensity for wonder. At the same time, I wholeheartedly believe it’s my responsibility to be the sharer of wonder that Carson mentioned. I do this by deliberately employing strategies and designing experiences that celebrate an inquisitive nature and build students’ confidence in wondering about the world. Below are two practical strategies I encourage you to try.

From K-W-L to O-W-L

Most of us are familiar with a KWL, which is a chart for mapping students’ thinking by documenting what students already know about a topic being studied, what they wonder, and later, what they have learned. When I came across Emily Morgan and Karen Ansberry’s spin on this, the OWL chart—referenced in their Picture-Perfect Science Lessons book series—I saw a transformation in the quality and quantity of my students’ questions and an increase in participation by reluctant students.

Breigh’s students recorded observations using words and drawings. Photo by Breigh Rhodes

The O stands for observation. With the OWL approach, all students are given time to observe and document observations about the thing being studied. For example, following my expedition to Antarctica as a 2017 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, I was inspired so deeply by the ice that I planned a miniature unit for my pre-kindergarten students about ice and icebergs. I brought in some large pieces of ice in containers of water and let students openly explore them. Students used their sense of touch, hearing, and sight to make and share their observations. They shared observations such as “it’s cold,” “I hear a cracking sound,” “It feels smooth,” and “I can see my partner’s hand through the ice.” By first having a tangible experience with the thing to be studied, learners are given an entry point to contribute to our documentation, regardless of their level of prior experience or knowledge.

The OWL approach also provides a more fertile environment for student questions to naturally occur. Even inquisitive young children often get stuck or feel hesitant to share when being put on the spot with a prompt like, “tell me anything you wonder about ______.” However, there’s something almost magical that happens in the messiness and excitement of the initial observation period that naturally ignites wonder. Within minutes of sharing our ice observations, the questions also began: Why does it look like little rivers are flowing? How big will it be when we get back from lunch? What makes it cold? What’s making that cracking sound?

Adding Invitations for Experimentation

Once students have had time to explore the item and we have begun documenting observations and wonderings on the OWL chart, I add in a few additional materials. These materials are invitations for students to generate even more questions, including ones they could actually test in class through simple experiments. For example, while my learners were exploring the ice, I showed them some 1-inch tiles, flashlights, plastic models of Antarctic animals, cups of various sizes, thermometers, food coloring, salt, a bottle of soap, and a pitcher of warm water. There’s no real right or wrong to the extra materials you introduce, aside from them being safe and appropriate for students.  

Breigh’s students used additional materials to learn about the ice. Photo by Breigh Rhodes

I invited the students to share what new wonderings they had that included the additional materials. Students asked questions like: What if we poured food coloring on the top? Would it flow down the little “rivers” on the ice? What would happen if we poured the salt on the ice? How many tiles long is the ice? What would happen to the ice if I poured sugar on it and then put it back in the freezer? By having materials right in front of them to spark imagination and further curiosity, students’ questions are more abundant and uninhibited.

At this point in the learning cycle, curiosity is at a high and so is the enthusiasm and motivation to learn more. This is a prime opportunity to use these questions to drive the lessons that follow. Students can test the experiments they proposed. Their wonderings can be incorporated into future lessons. New wonderings can be continually added to the chart even up until the end of the unit and beyond. Intentionally encouraging their curiosity in this way gives students a sense of ownership in their learning and demonstrates that I am not looking for the “right” question. Instead, I truly value and am interested in their inquiries.

Although the example I have shared focuses on lower elementary grades, the same approach can be translated for older students. Similarly, although I most often use these strategies when beginning a study in science, I can see this approach being used to study a multitude of other topics from jazz rhythms to types of maps to ancient Egypt. I encourage you to try out these ideas and make them your own as you build and share a sense of wonder with your student explorers!

Lindblad and NGS

The Strategy Share series features innovative teaching ideas developed by Grosvenor Teacher Fellows following their field-based experiences on voyages with Lindblad Expeditions.

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