Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fostering Curiosity in an Age of Accountability

In my capacity as Coordinator of College Reading at Rider University in New Jersey, I have the opportunity to teach many students who are, like I was 50 years ago, the first in their family to attend college. Because of this, their SAT scores and a number of other factors, these students are viewed, correctly, by the college administration as "at-risk" of not completing their college education. As all institutions of higher learning should be, Rider is concerned about retaining these students. And so last week I found myself seated in the tutoring center on campus with a consultant the university had hired to help them address the retention issue.

The consultant asked me a straightforward question."What is the one thing you would say these at-risk students need more than any other to be academically successful here?"

The one word answer came out of me quickly and without reflection like I was playing a game of free association. "Curiosity," I said.

I am not sure why I said this. I just blurted it out from the recesses of my brain. I had just come from a class with my students and I was aware of the effort I seemed to be putting in to spark student interest in the vocabulary lesson I was presenting. I remember trying to engage the students and pulling out all my veteran teacher moves (humor, turn and talk, relevant examples, interesting anecdotes, write and reflect, small group discussions) to limited effect. Was this experience where my knee jerk answer came from?

Ever since I gave that answer, I have been reflecting on and reading about curiosity. Where does curiosity come from? What actions foster curiosity? What actions kill curiosity? Why is curiosity important?

I was a curious kid. After toddler years of driving my parents crazy with questions, I marched off to school where I had free rein to drive my teachers crazy as well. Mine was not always a welcome figure in the classroom. My questions bubbled out of me before I could remember to raise my hand. Other students looked at me askance as I bullied my way into one group discussion after another. In high school I was on a first name basis with the entire office staff because I was frequently "excused" from class because of ill-timed outbursts.

I didn't grow out of it either. In my sixties and working as a school district administrator, a good friend and fellow administrator pointed out to me that I tended to dominate conversations in meetings by asking lots of questions and then bursting forth with some insight, relevant or not. He said to me one of the truest things I had ever heard about myself, "These conversations are the way you learn." And there it is. My curiosity and my audacity combined to help make me a successful learner. But how was this fostered in me and how can I foster this in my students?

In pursuit of an answer to my question, I found a terrific article by Erik Shonstrom in Education Week. Shonstrom defines curiosity as "seeking and exploring." Shonstrom says, curiosity does not sit very well in the traditional classroom because it is intense, transient, and propulsive. Curiosity is messy. Shonstrom cites Carnegie Mellon professor of economics and  psychology, George Lowenstein, who says,

Curiosity tends to be associated with impulsive behavior. People who are curious not only desire information intensely, but desire it immediately and seek it out even against their better judgment.

How can we foster curiosity in our students? Shonstrom says that "for students to be curious, they must feel worthy of seeking." Students must feel entitled to ask questions, to explore, to wonder, to speculate. We have all known students who we deem "naturally curious." I no longer think any kids are "naturally curious" at all. Like me, I believe their curiosity was nurtured, by indulgent parents and other adults perhaps, by inspiring and engaging teachers certainly, and by simply being given the time and the feelings of safety and security that allow for brain space to be given over to exploration.

Unfortunately, school often works against the development of curiosity. And, it seems to Shonstrom, schooling for "at-risk" children is the worst offender. He says that if we want to nurture curiosity we need to "disengage from standardized testing and common curricula." "Curiosity," he says, "does not hold up well to intense inspection." He advises that teachers be given the agency to slow down and allow time for kids time to wonder and be curious. I would add that we also need to provide children with a safe environment where exploration is rewarded and not punished and where impulsivity is recognized as an element of curiosity. For some children, school may be the only place where it is safe to let the mind wander and explore or to give in to an impulse.

As a language arts teacher, I think we can nurture curiosity by providing children some choice and voice in their reading and writing in an environment that supportive and safe. In reading this means providing guided, but genuine, choice in what kids read independently and the opportunity to give voice to what they have learned in their reading through conversations with their peers, their parents and their teacher. In writing this means real topic and audience choice for what they write for real purposes. A classroom is too much of a closed environment to nurture real curiosity. When children can get outside of the classroom hothouse either through their imagination or through actual explorations out of doors, we can feed their curiosity. So I think of kids writing about things that matter to them to the people who can do something about it, whether that be their parents, the principal, the local mayor, the Environmental Protection Agency or the President of the United States. Real audiences encourage genuine (and correct) writing and I hope, feed the curious mind.

I started this blog post with speculation on the importance of curiosity for my college freshman. I end it reflecting on the irony of 21st century education reform with its focus on developing "college and career ready" students through standardized test driven accountability and common standards. Could it be, as Shonstrom suggests, that this inspection driven movement, obsessed with data and accountability, is helping kill the curiosity that students need to be truly college and career and, for that matter, life ready?