Three Questions That Lead to the Joyful Act of Learning
By A. Mausolf
What do I notice?
What do I wonder?
What does this remind me of?
In our professional development sessions with teachers, our team recommends again and again the use of these three questions in order to engage students in a rich learning experience. Probably best known for their prominence in nature journaling, these questions are appropriate to every age – from lisping toddlerhood to octogenarian sagacity – and to every subject – from mathematics to philosophy and from fairy tales to complex Russian grammar forms. Do not be misled by their simplicity. These three elementary questions naturally lead into each other and their depth encompasses the spirit of liberal learning – they are bigger on the inside, like the Tardis… or the Catholic Church.
What do I notice?
Constant consideration of this question develops in students the lifelong habit of attention. It is a grounding in reality, a contemplation of creation and art. In his essay “Recovery of the Experience,” Christopher Blum describes this habit as displayed by a naturalist: “…it is an excellence of the use of the senses, an attentiveness that seems to make his hearing more acute and his eyesight more sharp, because he has learned how to watch and to listen.” Whether by observing trails of raindrops on a windowpane or weighing the words of a lyric poem, a young mind focused on the details of sensory experience sharpens its powers of mental rigor and expands its imagination. The habit of noticing, of attention, gives rise to wonder in the human heart. Children who really notice recognize encounters with beauty and goodness and consequently grow in gratitude.
What do I wonder?
This question reflects the healthy spirit of inquiry embedded in the liberal tradition. The quest for truth is expressed simply in the words of Aristotle, “All men by nature desire to know…” Innovation is born from questions. Asking the how and why of things, especially in dialectic discussions, helps students train their faculties of reason in order to distinguish the true from the false, the gold from the glitter, and the essential from the peripheral. St. John Paul identifies our God-given longing for knowledge in Fides et Ratio: “Revelation therefore introduces into our history a universal and ultimate truth which stirs the human mind to ceaseless effort; indeed, it impels reason continually to extend the range of its knowledge until it senses that it has done all in its power, leaving no stone unturned.” The process of learning is fruitful and multiplies: observation leads to interest which leads to questions which lead to answers that beget countless more questions in a genealogy of discovery. Questions bear the seed of Wisdom. (There is a caveat, however, in the classical tradition – the desire for knowledge must be rightly ordered. Only then can Truth, like a handmaiden, usher in Wisdom, her queen.)
What does it remind me of?
Those educated in the liberal tradition are given a vision of the Unity of things. There are no borders or separations between disciplines; each overflows into the others in an abundant outpouring of reality. What a delight to see that not only is the nature of all things a seamless garment, it is one of infinite proportions! A unit on the properties of light can incorporate etymology, nature study, and art appreciation just as a study on the rise of monasticism might include poetry, music, history, and the common arts. In his Seven Laws of Teaching, John Milton Gregory writes, “A truth is known by its resemblances, and can best be seen in the light of other truths; the pupil, instead of seeing a fact alone, should see it linked to the great body of truth, in all its fruitful relations.” All that a student has noticed or wondered in the past can be brought to bear in every lesson to make connections and to see the relationships between things. In addition to reinforcing the habit of memory, a lifelong boon, it reawakens wonder with every discovery.
Thus we are brought back to our starting point with an increased desire to notice, to wonder, and to synthesize in the joyful act of learning.