“That’s an interesting theory!” – Teaching as Research

As we continue to explore the idea of doing research with children, one of the common questions I get is when people ask, “What are children learning?”

As I’ve mentioned many times before, in standards-based teaching, learning outcomes are drawn from standards and teachers then try to observe whether or not children can demonstrate that they meet those outcomes.  This is by far the most common way to teach.

Doing research, however, means that the end points are never clear.  Research implies being in a mode of systematic inquiry; it holds the word “search” within it.

In regards to hoped-for outcomes then, what we are interested in is the process. Not products.

How should children engage in problem-solving, conducting research, collaborating?

This question is very different from this one: What should children know?

We will commonly encounter children’s flawed theories, failed attempts, and incorrect assumptions.  In traditional teaching, we would correct it.

I encourage teachers who are new to inquiry approaches to start mixing it up.  Instead of only correcting children.  Sometimes children’s flawed theories are launching points to engage in research with children.

If a child expressed something that was flawed, something I would commonly say to children is: “That’s an interesting theory!” And I would follow up that comment with, “Let’s investigate!”

These words, “theory” and “investigate” become part of the classroom.  Research becomes an exciting experience.

The experience is far richer.  During the course of research, children will engage in literacy, numeracy, science, history, social sciences. Because children don’t compartmentalize subjects the way we do, it’s all intertwined.

I’ll end with the words of Carla Rinaldi on this matter.  Children are in a state of research.  Let’s join them:


This attitude of the child means that the child is a real researcher. As human beings, we are all researchers of the meaning of life. Yet it is possible to destroy this attitude of the child with our quick answers and our certainty. How can we support and sustain this attitude of children to construct explanations? If a child says, “It’s raining because God is crying,” we could easily destroy his theory by telling him that it’s because of the clouds.  How can we cultivate the child’s intention to research?  How can we cultivate the courage to make theories as explanations? In this attitude, we can find the roots of creativity, the roots of philosophy, the roots of curiosity and the roots of ethics. In this capacity of building theory with the freedom of collecting elements are the roots of creativity. In this attitude to find answers to questions are the roots of philosophy. This why is the only way in which to maintain what is essential in our life . . . curiosity. Humanity exists because we have developed our curiosity. In the search for reasons and information lie the roots of ethics.


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