Dear Hilltopper Community,


Thank you for joining this monthly conversation regarding Marshall's mission & purpose, and thank you for providing feedback on the most recent essay. As always, I welcome your thoughts on this topic as well.

Kind regards,


What Do You Wonder?

If you are my age and wrote a research paper in high school, you may recall your teacher imposing strict limits on the amount of information you could borrow from an encyclopedia. The rationale was simple. Using an encyclopedia was too easy; it deprived you of the opportunity to hone your research skills and hindered the process of discovery. Instead, you learned how to use the card catalog and read periodicals on microfiche, at times feeling as if you had uncovered facts known by just a handful of scholars worldwide.


That joy of discovery, that ability to seek answers not readily apparent, is increasingly at risk in today's schools. If anything, using an encyclopedia is now judged to be cumbersome and inconvenient. Why seek information when you can simply ask Alexa? Given this new reality, today's students are in danger of graduating with poor research skills—and absent any appreciation for discovery. And, without these key components of intellectual curiosity, how can we expect today's students to solve tomorrow's problems?


At Marshall, we have added inquiry-based learning opportunities at every grade level and in all disciplines. Not too long ago, Upper School faculty member Paul Schonfeld asked his physics students to express a scientific curiosity in the form of a simple question. Students asked questions about the reflections they saw in puddles, about gravity's impact on plant life, and about the oxidization of certain metals. Gabby and Ava had questions about gravity, so they formulated this central question: How do skateboarders jump off the ground yet keep the board stuck to their feet? Their investigation revealed a deeper understanding of torque and Newton's Third Law.


This five day physics project begins with a question and an investigation. By week's end, the students document their research methodology and display their findings. The final step is a reflection. Emma researched Slinkys and seismic waves and, when she finished, submitted this reflection:


One of the things that is really interesting about physics is that once you start investigating one thing, you figure out that it is attached to everything else. Once you learn about one thing, you discover you need to learn about this other thing in order to explain the first thing, and that new concept leads you sideways and somehow you need to learn about 10 things that each demand explanation.


The project in physics is hardly a "one off" unit. By the time these students are seniors, they have learned to ask questions and explore answers in math, fine arts, and humanities as well. For the past two weeks, eighth grade students have pitched their ideas for Genius Hour projects, student-directed  presentations that they will share with the community in March. This unit, which Lori Durant, Middle School Humanities Chair, introduced six years ago, allows middle school students to develop the independent research skills they will use when they encounter similar projects in high school, college, and in the workplace.


For many students, inquiry-based learning does more than foster intellectual curiosity. For some sixth graders, for instance, learning to ask questions in middle school math allows students to develop confidence and numeracy. Several times each week, teachers start class by writing problems or patterns on the board and asking students:


  • What do you see?
  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder?


Are not these the sort of questions that foster greater curiosity? Certainly, these students will relate to math differently than will those who only ask, "What is the answer?" 


(c) 2018 Marshall School 

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