Sunday, March 17, 2013

Curiosity - A Key Ingredient for Lifelong Learning

Susan Engel, a senior lecturer and director of the program in teaching at Williams College, offers some perspectives from her research about children, teachers and curiosity in a recent article published in ASCD’s Online publication.

In a random study of teachers, she asked if they believe that it’s good for children to be curious, and they overwhelmingly replied that it is. Other adults also said that they value curiosity and believe that it’s essential to learning.

Research repeatedly shows that when people are curious about something, they learn more and better. Engel points out that “If curiosity has such a positive impact on learning you might assume that teachers are doing everything they can to encourage it. But that is not the case.”

Her studies show that there is a surprising lack of curiosity in today’s classrooms.

What she found was that over a two hour observation there were, on average, only 2 to 5 questions asked, and these were primarily asked by the teacher. Students were not exploring or asking questions about what they wanted to know or what they found interesting or worth exploring. Nor were they pursuing their passions and interests. Activities were overwhelmingly teacher directed, and students followed the adult instructions.

What we know is that children are innately curious and want to know the how’s and what’s of most everything.  Anyone who has spent time with a four-year-old knows this all too well. Their curiosity drives their learning, and through asking questions they begin to understand the world and how it works. Somehow, this questioning begins to dissipate as children enter school and their natural curiosity dwindles as they go through the grades.

So, what is to be done to help our children continue to be curious?  Engel says, “Experiments I've done show that children show much more interest in materials when an adult visibly shows how curious he or she is about the materials. In other words, children's curiosity can be fostered or squelched by the people they spend time with.”

She goes on to point out that a statement as simple as, “Let’s see what happens” can demonstrate what curious thinking sounds like. If we know that curiosity is something that we value in people, then what can educators do to promote it in their students and classrooms?

Engel believes that there are four things that we can do. First, we can hire teachers who are curious, teachers who are interested in knowing more about their students, and how they learn. Teachers who are interested in child development, the effects of their own teaching, or who have a deep passion or interest that they have pursued over the years know what it’s like to be curious and can help their students to pursue their passions and interests.

Secondly, teachers can simply count the number of questions that are asked each day. This practice keeps the importance of questioning foremost in the teacher’s thought and encourages him or her to find ways to encourage and support student questioning. Helping students to learn how to ask good questions is an important life skill.

Dan Rothstein, the cofounder of the Right Question Institute, believes that learning how to ask questions should be considered as critical as learning how to read, write, and do basic math. He thinks the ability to use questions strategically can make people smarter and better at their jobs, and give them more control when dealing with powerful bureaucracies, doctors, and elected officials.

Thirdly, Engel believes that students who are engaged in finding the answers to their own questions are better prepared for lifelong learning than those who simply learn well from others. And, lastly, she suggests that we measure curiosity, because as we all know, what gets measured gets taught.

If we are serious about preparing our students to engage in the post industrial work environment where they were expected to follow directions and move production from one work station to the next, we must help them to develop curious minds that want to seek out the answers. This can only lead to greater learning that is deeper and more substantive than what is found in most classrooms today.
Getting our students ready for their futures in the 21st century needs to include helping them to become lifelong learners, and unless they are curious and willing to ask questions, teach themselves and learn deeply, they will always await someone else to tell them what they are supposed to know and what they are supposed to do.

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