PROCESS POST: “Observe!” “Explore!” “Question!” as Homework

Last night, when I got home from an evening meeting, my nine-year-old, “PJ,” was incredibly excited. PJ, his younger brother, JT, and a friend of theirs next door had collected flowers during their afternoon playtime.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

PJ described to me, with great detail and enthusiasm, the shapes of the petals, the location of the flowers in the surrounding neighborhood, the apparent similarities and differences among different plants of the same species, the colors of the blooms and the insect activity around the flowers. He explained their exploration strategy, and he told me how they organized the flowers in different ways and searched for examples of flowers that would fill and complete certain categories of their organizational schema.

PJ talked for 12-15 minutes non-stop about the exploration. He had been mesmerized by his discoveries, motivated by his own sense of curiosity and momentary trying-on of amateur botanist.

What if this were “Homework?” And I don’t mean an assignment from a teacher that reads: “Go out in your yard and neighborhood and find flowers. Categorize them by features x, y, and z. Write a report about your discoveries.”

I mean this kind of assignment: “Go. Explore. Observe. Question. Be ready tomorrow to tell us what you discovered!”

Can you imagine the habits of mind that could be nurtured with such structured freedom and invitation to practice the Innovator’s DNA traits (observe, question, experiment, network, and associate) over time?

Some days, I imagine children might return to school the next day without something to report. But they would hear their friends and classmates report, and there would grow this communal “pressure” and encouragement to explore, discover, and bring in stories. Connections and associations would arise. Experiments could be proposed and designed to test hypotheses. Data could be collected. Engineering and design could emerge. Threads of history and lenses of various other disciplines would be woven together in more natural ways.

Your Homework: Go. Explore. Observe. Question.

10 thoughts on “PROCESS POST: “Observe!” “Explore!” “Question!” as Homework

  1. Pingback: How are you igniting #curiosity and wonder in your own backyard? | it's about learning

  2. Bo,
    Thanks again for continuing to push our collective thinking. Where you comment, “Some days, I imagine children might return to school the next day without something to report,” I can also imagine a scenario where only some of the class members are asked to engage in this first step of inquiry while for the others their work begins the following day in school. For those students, they are charged to actively listen to the reporting back from their classmates and then choose to join with one of their classmates to further the investigation through collaboration and shared inquiry. In this way, the initial point of inquiry becomes a network of classmates working together around points of shared interest and curiosity. So many possibilities here.

    • Mark,

      What a fabulous “Yes, And…” you’ve contributed. Thank you. Absolutely, I can imagine this scenario, too. In fact, this played out in Synergy multiple times.

      I appreciate you plugging in and forwarding the collective thinking, as well. I increasingly believe that HW holds a critical key to school transformation.


  3. Bo,
    I sang as I read this the other day, and I am encouraged by the comments as well. Again, our understandings of school and homework date back to our experiences in many roles (student, parent, teacher…). You mentioned in one reply that school is connections, hence my singing! Relationships and connections are the key components to revitalize and reframe school closer to the learner and farther away from the adults. Adults are learners as well, we will all argue, but I think the adults are the ones who have to re-prioritize our roles and place learner first, then teacher/parent/adult afterwards. We accept the role as learner but most times relinquish it when we get into the “preparation” stage. We all feel a responsibility to prepare our children for their next steps, and I think this overwhelming responsibility takes over who we are as learners. We as adults must remember the best way for us to “prepare” children is to model and live out what we wish them to do every day!

    I remain bothered by the word homework- work at home- and the connotations and definitions many of us can’t forget. We could certainly have fun coining a new term– I can just see the Twitter feed now! Perhaps the shift comes from focusing on the verb of what we want learners to DO– it may be read; it may be study; it may be reflect; it may be explore; it may be collect; it may be discuss. If school is connection, then home-school is just one of them. If learning is any time, any place, then why distinguish or label it with a place: schoolwork, homework, wireless work… And perhaps the first place to start is with our adult learners, so that they have these experiences and can speak and model authentically.

  4. Great post Bo! My mind races with wondering, how student reporting back about their homework would inspire students to find relationships between interests, and ways to enhance the process of discovery.

  5. For the last two weekends, I’ve taken my six-year old to the skate park near the Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta. He rides his scooter half the time and watches the other skaters the other half of the time. He is so enthusiastic–asking me to take him. While he is there, he will come up to me and say, “This is awesome.”

    Your post here reminded me of my son Stephen’s experience at the skate park. The skate park is definitely a place where the Innovator’s DNA traits are practiced and observable (even by a non-participant like me). I pointed out to Stephen that even when the other skaters are not skating, what are they doing? They’re watching everyone else and talking to the other practitioners at their side. Then they go and try something new; always pushing their skills and experimenting. Like Etienne Wenger’s definition of a Community of Practice, they have their own language which Stephen and I are learning by simply being there and listening. Everyone is learning from everyone else, so everyone is a learner-teacher, regardless of age.

    Your post focuses on the possibility of assigning homework that is open-ended enough to encompass experiences as broad as the flower collecting-categorizing and the skate park community of practice. What intrigued me most about your post was that the classroom community itself becomes a community of practitioners who have a kind of “pressure” to contribute, explore, and share discoveries. When I started reading your posts about this kind of homework, I was doubtful, but now I am more ready and willing to believe it might work.

    I suppose my biggest question is how do you create that kind of community in the classroom? In my reading, I have concluded that an imposed, top-down community of practice is not authentic and therefore yields little fruit. So as I write this, I’m wondering, is it possible to create such a community atmosphere in a classroom that is co-created between “teacher” and “students” as opposed to the teacher telling everyone what we’re going to do now?

    I know we agree that authentic learning occurs when the learner is motivated by something internal (even if curiosity is initially sparked by a teacher). So my biggest hang-up or doubt is this nagging question: Can school actually prepare you for real life? By its very nature, is school too structured and limited a vehicle? Can school be mutable enough, malleable enough, to actually be more like real life? My initial response is no; school by its very nature must impose a structure, and any structure that’s imposed is going to hinder the opportunities for authentic learning. (I’m not advocating schools without structure either–that’s just chaos).

    I certainly would have insisted that I was right a year ago, but I am beginning to see the limitations of right and wrong thinking. Recently, I am willing to be more open and willing to change my perspective.

    Your response?

    • Craig,

      As usual, I so appreciate your “thinking out loud” with me. I miss our discussions of learning and schooling and education. Thank you for your beautiful story and elegant questioning and investigations here.

      I do believe that school can prepare us for real life. In its current form, however, it grossly underperforms on that measure. Thankfully, humans are very resilient and adaptive.

      Even more importantly, though, I believe school IS real life for students. (Of course, I’m thinking about Dewey here.) So, for me, the challenges involve us school/community leaders working in harmony to transform school so that it’s more than just “preparation” for real life. Rather it should empower learners to engage the world now in myriad ways. And certainly the model is way too focused on filling student-learners’ heads with content knowledge that is overly removed from contexts and its natural tendency to exist in multidisciplinary and integrated relationships.

      Like the best way to prepare for skate boarding is, in fact, to skateboard, and in a community of skate boarders, so too is the best way to prepare for the real world to explore and engage in the real world. “School” is increasingly everywhere, anytime, and with virtually anyone. However, too many people still hear the word and think of a static place that can be easily pinned and flagged on Google Earth. School is connections. I’ll say it again – school is connections!

      What do you think?

    • Bob, thanks for your comment. I increasingly believe that “homework” may very well be the lever that helps us transform schools. It could be more of an encouragement of exploration and method for curating multidisciplinary investigations that stem from student-teacher-learner curiosity and a greater locus of control and caring. I do think it could change the face – and the rest of the body – of school. And strengthen families. And better model some of the “real-world” skill sets that are essential for engaged citizenship and investment in our work and hobby lives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s