Prioritizing Curiosity in the Classrom
As teachers, we do our best to design engaging lessons and motivate our students. We are focused on the learning standards designated by our state education agencies and are committed to helping our students improve and succeed. That’s not so bad. What is bad, is what we have had to abandon for the sake of time and priorities. A side effect of systematizing education is the death of curiosity.
Why is curiosity so important? Because it leads to interest which leads to passion - and without passion, there is no grit. Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance; the perseverance is what is the fortitude necessary to face and overcome obstacles. The passion is the “why” that fuels that fortitude. So you see, curiosity is essential - whether you teach little ones or quasi-adults. How you cultivate curiosity differs, but the significance is the same.
Let’s talk about some ideas!
Do you remember VH1’s pop-up videos? I do. I lived for them. (Just search YouTube - and be prepared to lose a few hours.) You could watch your favorite videos that had “pops” of trivia related and unrelated to the song and artist - they are irreverent and awesome. What if the culture of your classroom was similar to pop-up video? If, at the beginning of the day, you teased your class about Polly the anxious goat, dad bod fanny packs, or the Doritos Locos Taco?
Preschoolers are full of curiosity and excitement - the same thing we want in our classrooms! Why? Why? Why? I’ll tell you. We want our students to ask, “Why?” While that comes naturally when we’re four years old, it’s “taught” out of us as we get older. But it’s an easy fix! Give students five minutes every day to write down a list of questions. Do this routinely with no exception. They will struggle at first, but then, like anything we practice, it gets easier. In fact, it’s likely that our students will start thinking of some “why” questions on their way to your room, knowing it’s an expectation.
Exposure to new ideas breeds new ideas. Ask students to write a list of “I wonder” statements and then share one. After Student 1 shares her statement, Student 2 shares his - but his has to be connected in some way to hers, and so on. Then you challenge students to find some information about one of the statements and share it the next day. Some will do it and some won’t, but you can be sure that curiosities will be piqued.
Practice creative nonfiction with your students. Older students can go to a coffee shop, park, or mall on their own. You can take younger students to the cafeteria or sit them in the hall. The purpose of the activity is for students to write down everything they see, hear, and smell. They describe the people - what they look like, specific quotes of what they say, etc. Then they start to ask themselves questions (i.e., Why did she look like she was going to cry? Who is he texting?). In language arts, this can be the beginning of a creative writing assignment. You could also ask students to imagine the response to their questions is somehow related to what you are studying (i.e., She wasn’t going to cry; her eyes were watering because she accidently mixed peroxide with sodium.* He was texting his brother to tell him that the shoes he wants are 35% off, so instead of $109, they are now $70.85.)
Provide students with a prompt (i.e., song, painting, video clip) and ask them to write a list of questions related to the prompt. You can ask them to tie their questions to your content or not - the point is to prioritize curiosity. In his blog, Eric Barker argues that we are so entrenched in technology, that we confuse stillness with boredom. We have reverted to a stimulus-response mentality, with the stimuli being a text or a notification, and we’ve lost the ability to find wonder and enjoyment in the inactivity. By requiring our students to practice linking sounds and visuals to curiosity, we can retrain their brains to pay more attention to their environment and, most importantly, ask questions.
You will be hard pressed to find curiosity mentioned in your learning standards, but that’s not to say that it isn’t essential to your students’ development. The great news is that cultivating curiosity is simple and easy, a rarity in our profession.
*I have no idea if mixing peroxide and sodium will make your eyes water, but you get the idea.