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Unlocking Curiosity in the Classroom

Photo credit: Steve Ford Elliott

by Howard Pitler, Ed.D.

“The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” — Anatole France, French novelist, 1844-1924

There is much discussion in education these days about teaching curiosity. From my observation as a teacher, administrator, and most importantly, a grandfather, I think we are looking at curiosity through the wrong lens. The question to me isn’t “How can we teach curiosity?” but rather, “What can we do in schools to stop killing curiosity?”

This realization came to me recently while watching my two grandsons, ages 2 and 4. I bought a toy for the 4-year-old that was labeled for ages 5 and up. It was a small foam rocket that was to be put on a launcher tube and then launched by air pressure created by squeezing a bulb. The 4-year-old took the toy and experimented with different ways to put it together and make it work, and sure enough, after a few minutes he had it totally under control and the foam dart shot across the patio. Next, the 2-year-old wanted a turn. He took the parts of the toy and tried different ways to put them together to make it work. No one told him he was too young for the toy, read him the manual, or told him his solution wasn’t the “right” one. The end result was success on his part. He was soon launching rockets and running after them.

Curiosity is the way children learn everything from crawling, walking, riding a bike, or climbing on the monkey bars. Along the way there are surely false starts, stumbles, and bruises. Eventually the skill is learned and later, mastered.

What would it look like if we taught a toddler to walk the way we teach math or science procedures in school? First, we would talk with the child about the steps in walking and have them pass a quiz on the fundamentals of walking. Toddlers who didn’t pass the quiz would be moved back to remedial crawling, likely at the expense of music or art time. Next, we would have them actually try walking with some assistance a few times. After that, of course, is the independent practice. This practice would be done in the child’s room as homework without guidance. If the toddler was able to walk the next day he or she would be rewarded and begin running practice. If the toddler could not walk independently he or she would be reprimanded and then also moved on to running. The assembly line waits for no one.

Nurturing the natural curiosity of all learners should be job one for every teacher. A glance at the Framework for 21st Century Learning shows the 4Cs: Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity. The 4Cs are built on an underlying foundation of curiosity. Why does ______ do that? How can I _____? Is there a better way to ____? I propose a three-step process to help build a curious classroom.

Step one – Begin with the question. A classroom that encourages curiosity is one in which a variety of different strategies are encouraged. “Can you think of another way to ____?” “What might happen if ____?” Start with a question that is interesting and might not have a clear and simple answer. A good question should have what George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University referred to as an “information gap.” Loewenstein wrote, “The information-gap theory views curiosity as arising when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.”

Step two – Ensure foundational knowledge. There needs to be some basic knowledge from which to build. It’s hard to be curious about something of which the learner has zero knowledge. As soon as we know something however, our curiosity increases and we want to know more. We want to branch out and look at other possibilities. Loewenstein refers to this as “priming the pump.” He writes, “Because curiosity is more likely to occur and will tend to be stronger as information is accumulated, interest, in effect, primes the pump of curiosity.

Step three – Communicate and collaborate. While some innovations and creations are made in isolation, it is generally helpful to talk with others to work on the question, pose a variety of solutions, and problem-solve together. In the classroom, cooperative learning is an excellent vehicle for this kind of communication and collaboration.

As educators are planning their instruction, keep in mind the words of Albert Einstein – “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” While he referenced science, this idea is not content dependent.

The opinions contained here are solely those of Howard Pitler.

Pitler imageHoward Pitler, Ed.D. is an author of Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd ed., Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd ed. He has worked with teachers and administrators internationally for over a decade to improve outcomes for kids. He was named a National Distinguished Principal be NAESP and is an Apple Distinguished Educator. He can be reached at hpitler@gmail.com, on Twitter at @hpitler, or on his website, www.hpitler.com.

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  • I would hope for widespread consideration of the writings of Sir Ken Robinson, Dr. Clayton Christensen, Tony Wagner, Scott Harry Kaufman, Tim Brown, and Tom and Dave Kelley!

    February 3, 2016

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