Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Cultivating Student Curiosity

I performed a magic trick at a recent workshop. I was working with a set of elementary-school teachers in Indianapolis: two workshops per day, over two days. With each of the four groups, I asked the teachers to show me what their students would draw if they were asked to picture a house, with a family and tree out front and the sun up in the sky. When they were finished, I said, “Now here’s my magic trick. I haven’t been anywhere near my computer while you’ve been drawing, but now I will reveal the picture that every one of you drew.” And I showed them this picture:

Sure enough, it was exactly what every one of them had drawn. And they were right—it’s exactly what all of their students would have drawn.


Un-boxing the Student Brain

Think about it for a moment. Why is every house a square with a triangle on top? Is that really an approximation of what their houses look like? And why are they all the same, when every house on the block looks a little different? Where are the two-story houses, the split-level houses, the apartment buildings? And why do the mothers all have long hair and the triangle that symbolizes dresses or skirts? Is that really what their mothers look like today? Who told them that a triangle symbolized Woman? Why does the tree look like a lollipop? Why is the sun a yellow circle with straight lines coming out of it—and, often, a smiley face?

The teachers offered up a wide range of interesting answers, including the following:

  • It’s what they’ve seen in books and magazines over the years
  • It’s what they’ve seen their peers do over the years
  • When they see their peers doing it, they change their picture to match what looks “right”
  • They get corrected by their teachers, who unwittingly get kids to conform to what looks “right”
  • They get preemptive instruction from teachers, who suggest using simple shapes (squares, triangles, circles) to keep kids from becoming frustrated

When any of these things happen—and especially when they all happen in the classroom—the result will be conformity—and, in this case, conformity to something that doesn’t even resemble reality. A student who enjoys science and knows what the sun really looks like will be encouraged (on purpose or unwittingly) to stop trying to draw a reddish-orange ball of burning gas and will draw a yellow, smiley circle. A child whose mother has short hair and wears jeans will draw a mother who looks nothing like her actual mother. Little by little, they will learn to substitute an approved, common vision for their own, singular vision. And then, suddenly, sometime in middle school, we’ll start asking what happened to their creativity.

According to research by the Right Question Institute, as children become verbal, the number of questions they ask in school each day shoots through the roof, but then begins a slow decline starting at around age three. By age 18, they are hardly asking any questions at all. Now, one could argue (as their research shows) that because this decline happens at about the same rate as their reading and writing skills develop, they have a decreasing need to ask questions in school, because there are finding their own answers.  But anyone who has ever taught middle or high school would snort with amused disbelief at that argument. In fact, far too many of our students become increasingly un-curious as they make their way through school. They learn not to ask questions, because they learn that their questions are not considered important. The adults mandate what will be studied, and the adults decide what questions matter. The job of students is to answer questions, not ask them. The job of students is to be compliant and responsive and well-behaved. There is no room for curiosity in the lesson plan.

In recent years, however, room has been made for curiosity in our learning standards. The Common Core State Standards, as well as other new state standards, ask students to form and write personal opinions (through grade 5) and evidence-based arguments (starting in grade 6) about a wide variety of texts. Informational writing is still important, but far less important than developing the skill of argument. You can’t make an argument if you don’t take a position—and you can’t make an interesting argument if you aren’t curious enough about what you’re studying to develop a point of view. The standards of mathematical practice likewise talk about the importance of argument. The first standard asks students (at all ages) to “reason abstractly and quantitatively,” and the second standard asks students to “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”

If that’s what we expect students to do, how can we make sure that we’re not inadvertently steering them away from those goals as they grow up with us?

Changing What We Ask For

An easy first step is to change the way we phrase our learning expectations. Every teacher learns, as part of her training, that lesson objectives must be clear, concrete, and measurable. And most of us learned to write our objectives using SWBAT language: “Students will be able to…” followed by that clear, concrete, measurable goal. For example:

Students will be able to support a topic sentence with evidence.

There’s nothing wrong with that objective…except that it tells students what they will do, rather than inviting or challenging them to do something. And that’s not an insignificant difference. If we want students to be curious, not just compliant, than we need to give them something to be curious about.  Imagine if we phrased that learning objective as a question instead of a command:

How can you convince readers that your argument is valid?

Think about how differently those two sentences register and resonate in your head, when you hear them. The statement is impersonal and commanding, where the question is personal and inviting. The question connects the academic content to the student’s own world. The question challenges them and poses them a problem to be solved. The statement simply tells them to do stuff.
Now imagine what you could do if that lesson objective was part of a larger unit—maybe even an interdisciplinary unit—that looked at all the different ways we have of figuring things out, as humans. What if we used a question to frame the entire unit—something like this?

How can we know what’s true?

You can still keep the SWBAT language in your lesson planner, to remind you what the concrete goals are. But why not invite the students to be curious and interested in what you’re teaching? After all, what you’re teaching is interesting and important!  If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t keep teaching it, generation after generation. Let’s try to remind ourselves—and show our students—why the stuff of school actually matters. And who knows? Maybe they’ll ask a question that no one has ever asked before—or find a solution to a problem that no one has been able to solve before. 

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