Size Does Not Matter

I recently read an article by the late Pat Clifford and Susan J. Marinucci entitled “Testing the Waters: Three Elements of Classroom Inquiry.” In this article, they describe how a Calgary school took a fairly innocuous question about drinking water for the victims of the Tsunami in 2004-2005, and turned it into a full blown, whiz bang, totally cool inquiry.

“A common misunderstanding about inquiry is that it always has to evoke “big questions” about the world and the meaning of life. Indeed, in the early years, the staff at Glendale School wrestled with terms like “essential” or “big” questions. Did you have to come up with something like “What is the meaning of truth?” or risk being nonessential or pedestrian? How “big” a question was big enough, inquiry-wise? As the staff developed its expertise and scholarship in inquiry, they came to recognize that sometimes a question posed by a crafty teacher seems very small, very ordinary—but only on the surface.” (Clifford, Pat and Marinucci, Susan J., 2008, p. 678)

One of the things I have struggled with in conducting inquiry projects, is coming up with that perfect “big question.” I had an aha moment when reading Clifford and Marinucci’s article. Their example of how a “very small, very ordinary” question can lead to a thoughtful, deep inquiry was inspiring, and has made me rethink how I might approach inquiry in the future.

It made me think of a blog post I wrote in the fall of 2011, which in retrospect, shows the potential for rich inquiry out of a seemingly small question. Unfortunately, I did not leave myself open to the possibilities. As Clifford and Marinucci state, “Teachers oriented toward inquiry will sometimes set up precisely the kinds of problems, labs, or events that provoke wonder.” (p. 678)

The children from my class came in, charged up about a rock they had found. They were convinced it was a fossil, but a fossil of what? We did seek the outside expertise of a specialist from the Tyrell Museum of Paleontology, who told us that in fact, our rock was not a fossil, but a “pseudofossil.” Our inquiry ended there. But what if we had followed up on this, and done further research on pseudofossils? What if we delved further to find out how the technician knew it was a pseudofossil, and if people have tried to pass off pseudofossils as real? This might have led to a study of the history of fossil hunters in Alberta, and the taking of train loads of fossils out of the province. The direction and possibilities of that inquiry are limitless.

One of my favorite places to visit virtually is The Allen Centre at Outram School in New Zealand. The online museum features things that the children have brought to school – things they have questions about. At the museum you will find information about Evvie’s sponges and Xanthe’s shark braincase.

If you go to displays, you will find how the study and classification of seashells led to Latin, word derivations, spiral shapes, the artist Piet Mondrian, the Fibonacci sequence, and even Harry Potter. The Allen Centre inspires me because it is a model of how wonderings and small questions can lead in all sorts of directions.

I realize now that the idea that inquiry had to start with a big question has really been holding me back. Inquiry needs to grow from the interests of the children, and as Clifford and Marinucci state, “. . . . inquiry questions demonstrate the organic, ecological character of genuine inquiry: One question leads to others, one answer opens on to fields of others, and the first step dictates in powerful ways what the next one will be.” (p.687)

As I learn more about genuine inquiry, my hope is that I will learn to be more open to the possibilities.

Clifford, Pat and Marinucci, Susan J. (2008). Testing the Waters: Three Elements of Classroom Inquiry. Harvard Educational Review, 78 (4), pp. 675-88.

Becker, S. (2011). Real Research. Retrieved July 4, 2012 from

Outram School. (n.d.) The Allen Centre. Retrieved July 4, 2012 from

The Allen Centre. (2011). Calling All Conchologists. Retrieved July 4, 2012 from

The Allen Centre. (n.d.) Museum. Retrieved July 4, 2012 from


About sandralbecker

An educator who is passionate about the creation of a school Learning Commons, which supports inquiry, critical thinking, and collaboration.
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