“Oh, Look He’s Wagging His Tail” – A Little Girl’s Exploration of Earthworms and How Current Approaches to Schooling and Systems Thinking Short-Change Students

Many years ago, I was studying how children thought while they worked with earthworms. The approach was pretty much like the approach I preferred to take as a teacher… Put the earthworms in front of the children with minimal instruction, then let them have at it. I then tape recorded each child as they explored and asked questions from time to time.

At one point, one of the 7-year old girls said, “oh, look, he’s wagging his tail.” She went on to other ideas very quickly, but this stuck out to me. In fact, I’ve thought about this statement for years. It’s a kind of flag or marker for hidden treasures.

If we think about this for a minute, we have “tail” – “wagging” – “earthworms.” These three things hold so many possibilities for exploration, inquiry, stories, and more.

  • What are tails?
  • What do tails do?
  • What makes a tail a tail?
  • What things have tails?
  • What things look like tails, but are not tails?
  • Why do tails wag?
  • Do wagging tails have a function?
  • What does it mean to wag a tail?
  • What other things mean the same thing as wagging tails?
  • In what contexts or situations, do wagging tails mean same or different things?
  • Why do earthworms move the way they do?
  • How do they manage to move?
  • Can we move like an earthworm?
  • What other things move like earthworms?
  • What makes earthworms look like they have tails?
  • Do they really have tails?
  • Can we create a dance about earthworms?
  • Can we write a children’s story about “my pet earthworm”?
  • Can you play music that will make you feel like an earthworm?
  • Where can we find earthworms?
  • Where do earthworms like to live?
  • What do they like to eat?
  • Are earthworms important for anything else?
  • Do they help other things?
  • What would happen if all earthworms disappeared?

These questions point to some of the many directions one can take with children. And, they all arise from a statement like, “oh, look, he’s wagging his tail.” Wagging is rich in function and meaning. Even though technically earthworms don’t have tails, the notion of tail is one of pattern and relationship. And, it is significant and worth exploring. The same is true of wagging. Wagging is pattern and relationship. From such simple statements, children can jump into a rabbit hole that can take them into all kinds of wonderful explorations of patterns and relationships and the stories they weave. As teachers, we cannot plan out these activities. We cannot predict the outcomes. We cannot create rubrics or measure student learning. But, we can provide children with the resources and opportunities to follow their interests and questions.

Traditional systems of schooling and even current approaches to teaching systems thinking fail to provide children with such opportunities. Schooling is stuck in trying to control everything. Keep everything boxed in (in rubrics). As a result, children are never able to stretch and explore the limits of their curiosities and imaginations.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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