Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, But It Makes the Learner

Why, oh why, oh why, oh why?
Why, oh why, oh why?
Because, because, because, because
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
(from Why, Oh Why, by Woody Guthrie)

This Woody Guthrie children's classic satirizes the young child's endless curiosity and the adult's impatience with it. Turns out, though, that this curiosity in children may be their greatest ally in becoming a skilled life-long learner. A new study from the journal Pediatric Research demonstrates that curiosity may be the most important characteristic a learner brings to the table. More important than grit. More important than persistence. More important than self-control. The study itself is behind a very expensive paywall, but you can find a helpful summary in this article from Business Insider. 

Here are the three key takeaways from the article.
  1. A study of 6,200 kindergartners found that kids rated as most curious and willing to try new things by their parents performed better on math and reading assessments at school.
  2. The curious kids did well regardless of socioeconomic background, suggesting curiosity helps everyone learn.
  3. Even curious kids who weren't as persistent or attentive did well, suggesting curiosity may be a more important trait to foster in children than self-control.
Traditionally, schools, being institutions for mass learning, have not been very good incubators for curiosity. Curious kids can be impulsive. They ask lots of questions. They are not always good at raising their hand before blurting something out. Teachers, in the name of their own sanity, try to contain the impulsivity of these children with classroom norms like raising your hand, waiting your turn, sitting still, etc. "No excuses" charter schools have doubled down on the self-control aspects of schooling, with such strategies as SLANT (Sit-up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod your head, Track the teacher), enforced through a military style discipline based on shaming the rule breaker.

Efforts to standardize curriculum, require high stakes testing, install test-based accountability for teachers, and cut back on funding for the arts all also contribute to the devaluing of curiosity as a desirable trait for the learner. All these current trends lead to a narrowed curriculum, prescriptive learning targets, teachers who are afforded less opportunity to model their own curiosity, and a paucity of programs for creative and intellectually curious minds.

Knowing the importance of curiosity for learning, we need to ask what can schools do to foster curiosity. Knowing that curiosity is more important to the learner than even grit, how can we change what we are doing to make sure there is a culture in the school that is conducive to curiosity? Here are a few suggestions.
  1. Model curiosity - A curious teacher can foster curious students. Teachers need to model their own fascination with the world. Sharing an interesting discovery at the beginning of class, interrupting a lesson to explore a question raised by a student, conceiving of a new question while teaching and then taking the time to explore it with the students, are just a few of the ways teachers can model their own curiosity.
  2. Allow time - Curiosity demands time. Students need to be given time to reflect on ideas and to pursue information as new ideas and new questions arise.
  3. Hook them in - Great writers know that they can engage a reader in a story by leading with a provocative hook. The author Lois Duncan started her novel about students killing their English teacher called, Killing Mr. Griffin, with this sentence: "It was a wild, windy southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them." As teachers, we can use similarly provocative statements to kick start a lesson. "Many historians have speculated that FDR goaded the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor in order to marshal support for the US entering WWII." A recent example might come from Kanye West. "Kanye says that 400 years of slavery sounds like a choice. What could he mean? Could he be right? What events would prove him right or wrong?"
  4. Create conceptual conflict - Questions that startle student expectations by creating conceptual conflicts encourage curiosity. A teacher might ask "Did you know that the lightning flashes we see during a storm actually start from the ground and rise up into the clouds? How does that square with your experience?"
  5. Recognize that our goals may not be the student's goals - As a young teacher I read a book called, The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died, but Teacher You Just Went Right On, by Albert Cullum. As the title suggests, we teachers often get so tied up in our lesson plans that we forget to honor the things that are happening in the classroom around us that impact the learning. Curiosity is fostered when we take the time to inventory our classroom and our students and cultivate a culture where "going off task" might be just the right thing at any given moment.
  6. Choice - Give students choices of topics they wish to explore, things they want to write about, books they want to read. Choice builds engagement and encourages exploration driven by curiosity.
  7. Foster a classroom atmosphere open to questioning - A classroom where kids feel comfortable asking questions, have time to formulate questions, have those questions valued and have class time devoted to trying to find answers to those questions fosters curiosity.
  8. Add art to the mix - Adding music, theater, dance, drawing to any learning experience can foster both creativity and curiosity. Why was the 1920s called the jazz age? What are some visual ways to express the theme of the story? What kind of challenges does Shakespeare present for the actor? What would that descriptive paragraph look like in a painting?
It is clear from looking at this list that fostering curiosity in students demands time, openness to suggestion, and willingness to go off the plotted course for a while. Curiosity dies in the classroom focused on compliant acceptance of rules. Curiosity dies at the hands of a standard curriculum directed at achievement on standardized assessments. Curiosity dies when there is no time for reflection. Curiosity dies when there is no time for the arts in the school. 

If curiosity is the single most important tool available to the learner, and research would indicate it is, it would seem to be critical for schools to find a way to nurture its development.