The Fractal Nature of Inquiry

I had a deadline looming. A term paper that needed to be done by the following Sunday evening. One week away, and of course, I hadn't started yet.

A friend had given me a book about a terrible couple of days on Mount Everest. People trying to beat nature and defy her highest peak. They failed. Many died. The story is sad, touching, and impossible to put down (even if it is not that well written and the author takes many dramatic liberties with the tale).

It got me wondering about the mountain itself. Not just that mountain, though it does get an unbalanced amount of attention being the largest, but mountains in general. As a lover of mountains, someone who feels at home in the thin, fresh air, I wondered why? Why do we attempt to defy these places? Why do we feel the pull to explore? Why do these monolithic slabs of rock formed by slamming tectonic plates draw us into their snow, and clouds, and peaks?

I moved onto a documentary about the first person to attempt to climb Everest. The story is shrouded in mystery. Did he make it to the top? There is some evidence that said he did. Other evidence that said he didn't. Nobody knows, because he never made it down. Isn't part of climbing a mountain coming down? How do you define the first to the top?

This made me wonder again, what about the people that live there? That make it their home? That look to these peaks not as obstacles to overcome, but as spiritual beings? How do they feel about this pull? I read about the life of the Sherpa. Their world-view, their sense of spirituality in a world of thin air. Their culture is rich and old and long, and is linked to Buddhism, environmentalism, and a sense of wonder in the unknown.

From here I was inspired to review the tenets of Buddhism. The creation stories behind it. The difference in practice and philosophy, from China to Japan to Thailand to the Sherpa to Western ideals of Zen, to many other places. How does this world-view change over time? How does it adapt to new surroundings? It is fascinating to notice the differences, and how flexible it is as a belief system. Do other religions (though I struggle to define Buddhism as a religion) adapt as well as this one? Do they change from place to place with such ease?

This led me into the waters of the monotheistic religions, and their spread around the world. The difference between Islam in the Middle East, Africa, and Indonesia. The variety of practices in Christianity from North America to Europe to Korea. How is this different from the various Buddhism practices around the world? What are the similarities? What are the differences?

Eventually, I wrote my term paper.

I forget what it was about (I am reminded only by remembering that my Mount Everest inquiry was in winter in Japan, which means it must have been the end of winter term, which means it must been that course of curriculum design, which means it must have been the paper about new models for curriculum...)

I have no idea what score I got.

I remember Mount Everest and the inquiry it sparked.

The Fractal Nature of Inquiry

Recalling this week of reading and wondering (it was over a year ago now), I am struck with some thoughts about inquiry and wondering.


  • My inquiry was unbridled and without purpose
  • It was driven my curiosity and my desire to know
  • I initiated it, and I chose the direction. 
  • It started with a provocation from a book that touched something inside me (you can say my heart or my brain if you wish, but I won't go there).
  • I remember it, a year later.

We, as educators, often like to put a structure on things. Bells and schedules and models. Units with standards and benchmarks, set lines of inquiry, key concepts decided by the teacher (or the institution).

But, how often do we let our children just wonder. How often do we let them get lost and explore? I am all for structured inquiry. It is necessary for learning about learning. And, I am all for purpose, or intentionality. Being focused on what we are learning helps us to see how we are learning.

There are many ideas like genius hour, me-time, and independent inquiries, that let kids explore topics that are relevant to them, and that they are passionate about. They are great ideas. But, how much of it is structured inquiry with a different name? I don't know. I do know that when I have done it, it has been structured. Should I try to make it more free flowing?

Another thought I am struck with is the shape of my inquiry. It started with a seed, a basic question about something that I was curious about. It flowed into something completely different. It was not linear, and it was not spiral. The emerging concepts did not build on the previous ones. It emerged as an organic entity. But it was structured, and it was organized.

If I were to place a structure on it, the spiral model would fail. It was more fractal than anything else.



I travelled along a route set by an initial question. It brought me to new places. I doubled back and travelled along different routes. I ended up not at the end, but rather just where I happened to be. And then it was over. The meaning I made and the content I learned where determined not by the structure, but by my own wondering.

Curriculum can be a guide, but so can curiosity, time, and space to explore.




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