Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Wonderful Wonder Journal

Welcome to Wonderland! During our grade eleven university-level biology course (SBI3U) my students were required to keep a Wonder Journal. The question marks dangling from the ceiling or the class motto “A day without questions is like a day without sunshine” provided an allegory for the truly perspective.
The intent of the Wonder Journal was to allow me, the classroom teacher, access to the critical thinking that was going on inside of the learner’s head. As an educator I needed to know:
·         Was the student engaged?
·         Did the student connect any of their new knowledge to prior knowledge?
·         Was the student making connections across the units, and across the curriculum?
·         How did the student’s biases and personal mores influence the objectivity their thinking?
At the end of the first week of class, each student was given a standard three-hole notebook, the kind we used to call scribblers or exercise books back in the day. They were simply instructed to write down what they were wondering about as a result of what they had learned in class this week. There was no word limit or topic given. It would be fair to say that all of the students struggled with what it was I wanted, they were eager to please but not being able to “look up the answer” or “copy” someone else’s was very difficult. “What am I wondering about? What kind of a question is that?” Eventually everyone managed to get something down and their Wonder Journal passed in.
As I read through the journals following the student’s first entry I wrote a lot of anecdotal comments and probing questions aimed at drawing the students’ thoughts out. When I returned the journals I gave the students time to read and consider what I had written in their journals. Then I told them:
1.      We would be writing in our journals on a weekly basis:
2.      It would be a good idea to keep a running list of things they may want to write about in their journals rather than try to come up with something on the spur of the moment;
3.      Journal entries would be assessed and evaluated as part of their “application” mark:
4.      The questions they posed in their journals would become the basis of the knowledge and understanding evaluations that we would be researching for each unit.

Reading the student’s weekly entries into their Wonder Journal quickly became my favourite prep activity. Not only was I gaining an insight into the students’ critical thinking and communicating with them on a personal level but I was also able to use the journal as an instrument to assess for, as and of learning.
Assessment for learning
In their journal entries students would often muse about content that we had not covered and of which they had no prior knowledge.
Sample student entry for learning:
“Are there other types of cystic fibrosis that doesn’t take place in the lungs? If so, what kind of effects does it have and how much can it be treated? Does this type of cystic fibrosis still cause earlier death? If it is caused by a mutated gene, is this type of cystic fibrosis in the same gene that effects the lungs?” (sic)
Assessment as learning
Any misconceptions the student had regarding curriculum became apparent through the way they retold or made connections.
Sample student entry as learning:
“Many people say that plants will respond to sound stimuli, this seems very far fetched unless it was very loud music in the same spot for a very long time since sound is just a difference in preasure, is this true?”  (sic)
Assessment of learning
Initially assessment of learning was the objective I expected to achieve with the wonder Journals. The fact that assessment for and as learning also occurred was an added bonus that increased the students engagement and understanding during the course and, for me, demonstrated areas of my lessons that needed further improvement and clarification.
Sample student entry of learning:
“I wonder if there is still fungi in my plant. Your comment about the cap made me think. Maybe there is a parasitic fungus at the base of my pen cap, and the mould I saw before is under the soil. This would explain the ridiculously slow growth of my plant. Just a theory I got after doing my writing on fungus and your comments.” (sic)
This is the rubric that I developed to establish a mark for each journal entry.

R (remedial)

If the student had done their readings these questions would have been answered.

Example: Is moss a nonvascular plant?


Questions show no insight into the curriculum.
Questions could easily be answered with a google search.

Example: Are spores produced by meiosis or mitosis?


Questions are adequate, yet simple.

Example: Why are there twice as many species of moss as mammals?


The Provincial standard, that is, it is the least that is expected of you!
Questions are based on the curriculum as presented, but show little evidence of critical thinking.

Example: What kind of moss is the dominant species in a peat bog?


Questions are profound and deep. There is evidence that the student has thought about the subject content and extrapolated it. The questions may be phrased to express background knowledge and/or make connections.

Example: Since Sphagnum moss is so absorbent and was traditionally used as diapers by Aboriginals, I wonder what commercial use is currently made of its absorbent properties. Is it the same “paet” that is dried and burnt in peat-fires in Ireland? How economically important is the harvesting of peat moss? Is harvesting peat moss sustainable?

Despite time constraints forced upon us by the timeline of a semestered course, when a student felt to rushed to make an entry or was not satisfied with an entry they had made previously they were always afforded opportunities to rewrite, reconsider, resubmit or have an extended deadline. Some things cannot be forced to fit an artificial timeline and wondering about the nature of the universe and then putting these musing into words are one of them!
I encourage all science teachers use the Wonder Journal strategy. By making it a routine expectation of your course you are not only allowing your students to develop their critical thinking but their writing process will also benefit, as will your personal connections with each one of them.
If you are interested in learning more about this wonderful inquiry based experience I will be presenting a workshop based on our experiences at: