Three-year-olds are great. They are still exploring and learning basic things about the world around them, but have the skills to begin to communicate their findings. This break I went down to our local creek with my nephew who discovered the joy of throwing rocks into the water.
As he tossed them in he noticed they made patterns, something he observed on his own and shared with us excitedly, commenting that we didn’t know until he told us. It was new to him, it must be new to us as well. As he explored more he came up with the second observation that the circles got bigger.
It was authentic inquiry. He discovered it, shared it with those around him, and explored more (what happened if the rock were dropped into algae, what if you drop rocks of different sizes).
As a science teacher I strive for authentic inquiry in what we do in class, but it can be a huge challenge. Even in fairly open ended inquiry labs, they are centered around a set topic the students are exploring. I’ve given research projects based off of an article or story, but still then I am the one setting the focus.
In an ideal world our school science fair would lead to authentic inquiry, but for many students it doesn’t. The internet is a great thing, you can google “science fair ideas” and find thousands of ideas; however, too many students gravitate to those rather than exploring something they truly care about. And I get that. It can be hard to come up with a question you care to explore and develop for months on the spot. You need to be inspired.
And I do see that in class. Students will discuss their interests with me, projects they are working on at home or things they are researching independently. And it is not just outside of school, I have demos that engage them enough that they want to explore more. Questions and connections they make with the material that goes beyond what we would have discussed in class. Even random times, such as the time when a student who used some of her class time to help me fix the little motor I was building in between classes.
Next year I am looking towards incorporating my version of the genius hour, likely more structured than the ideal, as an option instead of the science fair. My hope is that less structure leads to more authentic interests and more authentic inquiry. I want them to see what their interests are important. That their questions about the world matter. I want them to see that what they discover and learn is worth sharing with others. But achieving that to the extent I want remains one of my biggest challenges.