Building the Discipline of Curiosity

Recently I read an article from The Atlantic which talked about curiosity as one of the strongest markers of academic success. It started with a quote from Orville Wright, in response to a friend’s comment on how he and his brother would always be examples of how far someone can go in life with no special advantage, to which he answered: to say we had no special advantages … the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.”

I couldn’t agree more with Orville Wright’s words. I am a very curious person. But more importantly, I am aware of the benefits that this trait–inherited from and nurtured by my parents–brings to my life.  What happens to students who do not have that kind of family support? Who will nurture their curiosity in the absence of a supportive relative or the resources that make this possible? Can and should our schools step in and fulfill this role?

Personally, considering the state of our public education, I believe the answer is likely no, they cannot. At least not at the moment. According to The Atlantic article, curiosity seems to have no space in our schools. While the role of curiosity in education and in life has been studied, and it has been highlighted as a driver of academic success, given our standardized test proclivity, it has become an afterthought in today’s test score-driven schools. But I believe there are ways in which teachers and administrators can work to nurture students’ curiosity. Here at Live It Learn It, curiosity is at the heart of the work we do with our students. And day after day I see the benefits not only in how much students learn in three seventy-five minute lessons, but also in how engaged they are and how they feel about themselves as learners. 

But just what does curiosity mean?

Generally defined, curiosity is “a strong desire to know or learn something.” An inspiring definition, already directly connected to education, but too broad for our purpose of understanding it better. So let’s look at a more robust one, provided by Todd Kashdan and Paul Silvia. In their study, Curiosity and Interest: The Benefits of Thriving on Novelty and Challenge, it is defined as the

“(…) recognition, pursuit, and intense desire to explore novel, challenging, and uncertain events.

When you consider this more complex definition, it becomes evident how central curiosity is to students’ success in school, and to their general well-being and happiness in life.

The way I see it, curiosity is the spark that motivates us to want to learn something; it has to do with risk-taking, exploring the world, becoming open-minded, and actively participating in creating a world where everyone can thrive. In other words, it is an essential attitude of critical and creative thinkers, thus an essential attribute of an engaged, responsible, and community-oriented citizen–something our schools are already working towards.

Once we understand this, it becomes clear that we do need to build a discipline of curiosity in our schools, parallel to being a good reader or an empathetic listener. But curiosity is not something that you would learn in one lesson, or even after one project. It’s an attitude that needs to be cultivated continuously, throughout life in school and afterwards.

So how do we go about creating a discipline of curiosity?

I believe there is a key word in the definition: explore. We must allow students to explore in order to discover and learn. Playful discovery should have space in every elementary classroom. The more students have the opportunity to engage in discovery, the more comfortable they will become with their role as an explorer, as well as with the discomfort of not knowing something and having to work to discover it. This is a huge shift given that children belonging to the digital generation have a tendency towards immediate answers and satisfaction.

In a learning environment that supports exploration and curiosity, the teacher becomes a guide in helping students ask questions that will lead them to exploration, analysis, and reflection. It also means teachers must know how to design learning experiences that frame discovery opportunities in ways in which students become comfortable driving their own learning, thus building their self-efficacy. Once students start believing in themselves and in their capacity to learn and overcome obstacles, they start seeing the opportunity in mistakes and become less afraid of taking risks. This in turn will lead them to explore different perspectives and new realities, which with careful analysis and reflection, will help them become more open-minded and involved with the natural and social world.

There are many examples around the world of how making curiosity a key value that informs instruction and school life can look. The Reggio Emilia schools in Italy are a good example. This network of municipal preschools and nurseries was created after World War II with the intention of promoting a new kind of citizen that would stand against fascism. The values that inform these schools are critical thinking, self-expression, and you guessed it… curiosity. Through long-term projects, teachers observe what children know, are curious about, and are challenged by. Then they reflect on developmentally appropriate ways to help children expand their learning.

Opal School in Portland, Oregon is a more local example of a charter school that embraces curiosity. Their school, which operates within Portland’s Children’s Museum, sets up their classrooms so that students have access to materials for tinkering, creating and exploring, creating a space where students can make their thinking visible. This creates an environment in which creativity and imagination thrive.

Two Rivers and Mundo Verde are two Washington, DC Public Charter schools who also nurture curiosity through project-based learning expeditions. These expeditions create opportunities for students to engage in exploration of the world around them, establishing strong and relevant connections with what they are learning in the classroom.

Finally, Live It Learn It has been a steward of experiential learning in Title I elementary schools in Washington, DC. Our Guided Experience methodology takes students through guided discovery in the classroom, then extends their learning by going on field experiences to museums, historical sites, and environmental organizations where students continue discovering, analyzing, and reflecting. Then back in the classroom, students have the space to reflect on their own learning and assess how much they have learned through authentic assessments that continue to build not only their knowledge, but also their belief that they can be successful in school.

Some final words

Whether you are studying watersheds, the Civil Rights Movement, geometric shapes, or a character in a children’s book, as a teacher, you can find ways to nurture the curiosity in your students. Teachers may not always have the power to decide what they teach, but they have the liberty of choosing how they teach. Help students generate the questions that drive their learning. Help them build stamina as explorers by encouraging discovery, analysis, and reflection. Create a space for students to tinker, wonder, discuss with each other. Better yet, do it with them!

As a teacher, you can design learning experiences that bridge the classroom with the greater world outside. I guarantee your effort will result in increased student engagement and achievement, as well as investment in their own learning. You will be promoting autonomous learners who will later own go on to be more successful in their academic pursuits, and life in general.   

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