What Makes Something "Inquiry"?

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Eleven years into my teaching career, I think I'm finally starting to understand inquiry.

Over the weekend, I was looking back through photos to match some drawings with the date the children drew those ideas.  I was surprised that it was a month ago - when this "project" began.  After great dialogue with the other teachers at the end of October, I had changed one table in the room to be a place to explore a marble run.  I was looking to translate an interest in what I could only describe as "vehicles" into its parent, its "big idea".  Was it movement?  Speed?  Size and Scale?  Power?  I had seen the marble maze a few days earlier, took it out, and created one, simple marble run.  It had a funnel on the top, and went across twice before going down and exiting.  Reflecting now, I realize that was a way to create a prompt with the materials, and at the time, I wanted to take a few variables out and see if there was an interest in movement or speed. 

There was.  For one week we explored that particular structure; the next week, the extra pieces were added.  Engagement seemed lower among the younger children in that second week - they had difficulty snapping the pieces together, so they simply played elsewhere.  When I joined them and helped them create a new (and more stable) structure, they would continue to engage after I stepped away, but did not really attempt to redesign.  Throughout these two weeks, we had a clipboard and black pens ready for children to show their thinking, writing down their words as they drew.

What I, as a teacher, took away from that first week was that the children had something to say, and I hadn't been listening enough.  Their representation of the trajectory and motion of the marble run was a delight to see: moving thought to paper.  

This space became a laboratory of motion, language, and excitement.  For another, week, we built and represented those marble runs.  Some days the prompt was more structured:  two prebuilt runs, for example.  Other days, we might present all of the pieces for them to build.  In those situations, we scaffolded by talking about stability.  We used words like "wobble" and "footing" to help find words to share with children, so they might be able to think out loud, too.

Late in the third week, we took the plastic marble run away an brought out a material that I have had in classrooms past:  a wooden marble run.  The only reason I bring up my recollection of this item from my teaching past is because it required so much adult troubleshooting that it never lasted long out in the classroom as a play material.  The pieces fit together, but do not snap together, so a small bump from a head or an elbow, and the marble run is in pieces, and everyone walks away.  Despite knowing this, I put a few pieces out, along with the step by step directions of how to build the marble run.  So, like the plastic run at the start, the marble run was prebuilt - but with many more opportunities to crash.  I thought that I might scaffold the children's rebuilding of the maze, just like with the original plastic maze pieces.


At this point, I felt like I was guessing about the project.  I felt like a bit of a fraud, building on a marble maze with another marble maze.  Perhaps we are always guessing and we just become more comfortable with it.  At this point in the project, I was still trying to be an observer, not wanting to suggest too much.  Some of the children were very interested and visited this table often; others only explored the marble runs once or twice.

The week of the wooden marble maze also saw an activity develop outside with long gutters and cars.  The gutter was on an incline, propped on a stool, and some children were rolling cars down the gutter.  Soon they were using force, and all but throwing the cars down.  They skipped, jumped, and rolled over - but went much further than the slow rolling cars.  I used that opportunity to talk about how we make things go faster.

Back with the wooden marble maze over the next week, children became more comfortable rebuilding the maze with less and less assistance.  We started talking about the "doors" and "windows" in the wooden marble run, and that language became crucial in our ability to communicate around problems with the marble run.  "The door is facing out, not onto the road!" and "We need a window there so it can drop down" became common statements as the children learned more about how it worked through trial and error.


After four weeks of marble maze exploration, I felt that I needed to help guide the inquiry towards something - and that is where we have come now.  I have been wanting to write about this project, but I was unsure of its conclusion.  The conclusion should not be the focus, though.  When I looked back at those pictures to match with the drawings, as I mentioned at the start of this post, my revelation was that we have been thinking deeply about this topic for a whole month, and there is still interest.  I began this week by reflecting on documentation with a small group - showing them photos and drawings of the marble machine from the past month.  I thought about how the marble run "makes something happen" - and the children have control over what happens when they build independently.  I thought that perhaps the marble can do something else - like a Rube Goldberg Machine.  The day after looking at the documentation, I brought a small iteration of the plastic marble maze to the group meeting and told the children I thought that we could make the marble do something at the end:  knock over a domino.

This changed the prompt at the table -  a small basket of dominoes was added.  There was delight around knocking over the domino, and many children were ready for more.  We started slow and small, once again, but it escalated quickly into a whole group exploration, where we sprawled out on the floor and used a variety of materials to make a marble move towards a domino to knock it down.  This experience - the potential of taking the marble run out of it - helped change the perspective.  This was a scrappy planning period, too - I got small kapla blocks, incline hollow blocks, Brio train pieces with ramps, the plastic marble run, and the marbles and dominoes.  I got a clipboard and a camera.  Over the course of about 20 minutes, the majority of the children focused on building a new kind of marble run.  This was a whole group activity, since I was the only teacher at school at this point, and there were a handful that really were not interested.  They chose to read while others kept exploring.  At these group times, there is a bit of extra buzz, and lots of places to look for inspiration.

So many times in the past, I have thought that if everyone isn't obsessed with an idea, it is not a thread worth following.  This inquiry is proving that wrong over and over again.  There are definitely children who have been drawn to every part of the project, and others who float in and out, when their interest is captured.  When we think about engaging a larger number of children in a project, I think that means expanding ways in which children can experience it.  For example, if we are embarking on an inquiry of baking, some children will likely lose interest if we are simply showing up with a recipe, making it, eating it, and then doing it all again on another day.  There is nothing wrong with baking with children, but inquiry is a different animal.  The power of their translation of motion into lines on paper has been beautiful to witness, and the emerging ideas about the machines we can build ourselves seems like the next natural step.  I will be the first to suggest that it might not grasp interest for too long, and teachers' continued prompting and suggesting is key.  Yesterday, one day after the introduction of the dominoes, we played around with the scale of what is happening with the marbles and dominoes, using blocks and larger balls with the small slide in the outdoor play area.

To move forward in this inquiry, which does not really have a name or specific focus that I can articulate yet, teachers need to sustain interest by making small suggestions.  Some ideas that I have include curating outdoor materials to make machines, including gutters, balls, blocks, and more.  Inside, we can add more materials to that group build.  For as long as the interest in these machines is sustained, I will show them some simple things that make exciting things happen:  a ball on a string can knock something over.  I have simple machines and Rube Goldberg machines in mind; I'm thinking about cause and effect and chain reactions.  I am not trying to teach specific content here, but it often happens naturally.  If pulleys or levers come into this inquiry, it will be to help us solve a problem.  My little examples and suggestions, such as the marble knocking over the domino, are intended to add a little spark, then I step back and watch and try my very hardest to be quiet.  That is the hardest part for me.

When I suggested the marble knock over the domino, I presented the materials at meeting and said, "Wouldn't it be interesting if I could knock over a domino without touching it?" There is the potential for near magic when we make something happen without touching it directly - think about The Clapper!  My hunch is that making things happen on the other side of the classroom or playground without going there might be an interesting direction to suggest.  There will be cause and effect and maybe some simple machines along the way, so I need to be prepared to follow their lead.  As teachers, we mapped out some of these ideas in late October, but it is probably time to revisit that map and see where we have actually gone.

Just as the children are experimenting and exploring, so are the teachers.  I am challenging myself to find the right places for structure, since my tendency is to wait and wait without suggesting ideas for fear of taking the wonder out of it.  There is wonder in this exploration of speed/trajectory/cause and effect, whatever it may be.  My teacher-researcher inquiry parallels the group inquiry when I look at documentation to break it down and learn more about next steps.  I need to be prepared for when this project ends, and I have documentation that we can use to reflect and share when that time comes, and in the meantime, those photos and drawings help us all come back to the exploration at hand.  We'll try some new languages for translation - clay, wire, paint - and see where that brings us.  The children's words are a powerful language, too, and recording those has been an enormous part of this process.

This inquiry made me think of George Forman's description of constructivism in Reggio Emilia: teachers and children "build a group understanding of a theme" (2005, p. 12).  I'm fine not knowing what the theme is; perhaps we will be making something functional for our school.  In that case, we have documented our journey.  Perhaps it will be a book that is a collection of documentation:  words, photos, art media.  I am prepared for those options, and I need to be prepared for other options as well.

My question to the children before, and will likely be again, "How can we make something move without touching it?"  Dick van Dyke's eccentric inventor in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang lives and breathes that idea; we're just looking to explore it.