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Wondering focuses on brainstorming options, discussing ideas, identifying problems, and developing questions. According to Webster's dictionary wondering includes many different emotions including surprise, curiosity, and doubt. Brainstorming, discussing, and reflecting on questions, concerns, and ideas are all part of the wondering phase.

The challenge of the wondering phase is keeping an open mind. Students need to explore all the possibilities before focusing on a specific topic or issue. As students narrow their topic, help them focus on particular issues, concerns, problems, or questions related to the topic. Don't let them get bogged down with "the topic." Instead, help them focus on ideas and perspectives they'd like to explore.

Finding Purpose

Start with your purpose. Why are you working on this project? Is it for pleasure? Do you have a particular problem to solve or question to answer? Your project may begin with simply wondering about a topic.

Next, start listing questions you have about that topic. You might record your basic ideas in a journal responding to the following prompts: I wonder ..., I like ..., I dislike ..., I am in favor of ..., I am opposed to ..., I wish I could convince people that ... Examine your responses.

Create a list of topics. Brainstorm a list of words or ideas associated with each of the topics.

You'll probably start with a problem or question that you choose or one that has been assigned. Ask yourself: What is the problem I need to solve? Or, what is the question I want to ask?

try itTry ThinkTank from 4teachers.

try itTry Wonderville. There are many websites that help students explore their world. Look for interactive websites that provide exploration experiences.


There are many types of questions or problems to solve. Jamie McKenzie has identified and created many helpful resources for stimulating student thinking and questioning. Explore the following sites for ideas on incorporating questioning into your projects.

try itTry Questioning.org. Explore strategies for questions and questioning. Try the module maker for creating projects.

Connecting to Prior Knowledge

The next step is to connect these ideas to prior knowledge including attitudes, experience, and knowledge. Consider building a KWL chart of What I Know, What I Want to Know, and What I Learned. Keep a Wondering Chart (PDF) file.

Before searching for answers or possible solutions, it's a good idea to get a handle on what you already know and what information you need. This will save you lots of time when seeking information. People have different ways for thinking about what they know. Some people like to brainstorm a list of ideas, while others would rather draw a picture or create a table. The key is to get down and organize everything that you know about your topic. Some people like to use the 5Ws: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Try the 5Ws and H Chart PDF file.

try itTry Mind Tools: Brainstorming for more ideas on this technique. Try other ideas at MindTools.

Finding Your Focus

A graphic organizer is a great way to organize your ideas about your topic or problem. There are many technology tools you can use for idea organization. Use a visual thinking tool to get started with your project or you can follow it through the entire project process. Go to Graphical Organizers from Teacher Tap for ideas.

Do a quick survey of materials in the library and online. Are there books, magazine articles, and websites available on your topic? Do you think you'll be able to handle these resources or will you experience information overload? Does your topic need to be more broad or more narrow? Look at the topics that are related to your topic. Consider the headings and subheadings in articles, online catalogs, and in search engines associated with your topic.

Narrowing Your Topic

Once you've got a question or problem, identified everything you already know about the topic, and organized these ideas in a visual way, you're ready to narrow your topic to make it more manageable. It might be helpful to view a large project in smaller chunks or assign roles in a small group to get more done in a short time. Go to Narrowing Your Topic for ideas. Try the Topicing Chart PDF file.

If you're in charge of designing a research question, use words like what if, formulate, predict, invent, or imagine to get you started thinking about meaningful questions. Go to Critical Thinking from Teacher Tap for more ideas.


Select a topic. Ask yourself:

Are you concerned that you might think about the wrong things and choose the incorrect topic? Fear not! There isn't a perfect topic or best way to wonder about the world. It's your project. Pick what you think is most interesting or important. Narrow your topic in a way that fits with your personal and professional needs.

According to Carol Kuhlthau, students often make their decisions based on their predictions of the difficulty of the topic and likely success. However keep in mind that the inquiry process is flexible, so you can always revise your questions or adapt your project as you go. Rather than choosing one topic over another, it's probably most important that you select an area that you're enthusiastic about exploring. It should also be something that can be clearly defined and extended as the need as you proceed.

In a classroom setting, this is a good time for a teacher-student conference to discuss progress. Or, in a distance learning situation you may review and comment on students blog entries. This is helpful to be sure that the student is on track. It's also a good time to ensure that students feel confident about their progress and have identified a workable topic.

try itWondering Checklist
Develop an activity that you can do in your classroom to help students wonder about and focus on a topic, issue, or problem.
Finding Purpose - wonder about the world
Questioning - use questioning.org for ideas
Connecting Prior Knowledge - brainstorm what you already know
Finding Focus - use graphic organizers for thinking about your topic
Narrowing - select a managable "chunk"
Contemplating - reflect on your topic

video clipView Student Frustrations (1:44).

Carol Kuhlthau discusses the frustrations of students as they move from topic selection to focused project development. She highlights concerns that students encounter such as loss of confidence and indecision. She focuses on the importance of time for construction and discussion. – Excerpt from interview with Daniel Callison.

video clipView Topic Exploration (1:20).

In this video, a student explores possibilities related to her art topic. She asks the question: what is art? - Excerpt from “Asking the Right Question”, Pt. 1 of Know It All Series by GPN / Univ. of NB

video clipView Narrowing a Topic (2:33).

In this video, a student narrows her art topic. - Excerpt from “Asking the Right Question”, Pt. 1 of Know It All Series by GPN / Univ. of NB

Use of this video clip complies with the TEACH act and US copyright law. You should be a registered student to view the video.

Learn More

Critical Issue: Building on Prior Knowledge and Meaningful Student Contexts/Cultures from NCREL

Defining a Research Topic and Determining the Information Requirements from OASIS

Choosing A Topic from Duke Libraries Guide to Library Research

Prior Knowledge. Excerpted from The Strategic Teaching and Reading Project Guidebook (Kujawa & Huske, 1995).

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