Something is stifling curiosity in both our schools and our workplaces. This fact is especially concerning because the innovation necessary for solving today’s complex problems is dependent upon the power of creativity and exploration of possibilities by curious people.
At about age four or five, children are avid questioners. I notice this in our entering Kindergarteners. They are mini scientists conducting experiments, such as mashing things together and keenly observing the movement of insects on the playground. They are young anthropologists questioning the adults around them to learn about culture. When children enter school and are faced with increasing academic rigor, however, their propensity for questioning begins to decline quickly and steadily. Four-year-olds ask hundreds of questions a day. By the time they are in middle school, the tally plummets to near zero. Some would argue that learning how to read and write and google equips a student with the ability to find the answers to questions independently, but researchers are finding that engagement in school drops at the same rate over time as the habit of questioning. This phenomenon suggests that questioning and engagement are linked.
The best book I read this summer was “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” The author, Warren Berger, ponders whether kids stop asking questions because they lose interest in school or if kids lose interest in school because their natural tendency to question and be curious is discouraged. His ideas make me wonder... Are we “schooling” students to focus on memorizing answers rather than developing questions that will give rise to layers of answers, solutions, perspectives, and ways of thinking? Are we still locked in the Industrial Age in which a factory model of education was implemented to produce workers rather than the innovative thinkers we need today? How can we change our classrooms environments so that they stimulate curiosity and inspire inquiry? How can we teach students to not only question, but to improve and prioritize their questions?
Schools have been built around the purpose of training students to be better lifelong learners and adapters to change by enabling them to be better questioners. Deborah Meier, a leading education scholar and practitioner of progressive reform within the U.S. public school system, posed this question: What might the potential for humans be if we really encouraged the spirit of questioning in children, instead of closing it down? This guiding question resulted in Meier opening her first school in East Harlem in the early 70s, and she developed the teaching and learning focus around five learning skills or “habits of mind” that fostered inquiry. Other schools have also developed curricula based around questions. Montessori schools, for example, emphasize empowering students to explore, direct their own learning, and work on integrated projects.
Sugatra Mitra, an education scientists, asks the question, “Is knowledge obsolete?” Current school models continue to stress the ability to do math in your head and the recall of a wide mass of information. In a world where everyone has continuous access to the Internet, this educational paradigm will ultimately become obsolete. Mitra presents a vision of self-directed collaborative teams of children driving their own learning, with the teacher providing coaching and encouragement rather than imposing a prescribed path of learning .
As handwriting and fact memorization become less valuable for future success, a Hanover Research report, A Crosswalk of 21st Century Skills, sheds light on the skills necessary for participating in a global economy. Thirteen essential skills are listed below.
- Collaboration and Teamwork
- Creativity and Imagination
- Critical Thinking
- Problem Solving
- Flexibility and Adaptability
- Global and Cultural Awareness
- Information Literacy
- Civic Literacy and Citizenship
- Oral and Written Communication Skills
- Social Responsibility and Ethics
- Technology Literacy
At first glance, it might seem that developing these skills along with basic subject knowledge is a daunting task. However, through engaging students in inquiry-based learning, students will develop both content knowledge and 21st Century skills simultaneously. Many teachers use a simple inquiry cycle that involves students developing questions, researching projects, presenting what they have learned, and critically reflecting on the inquiry process.
The power of letting students choose questions to drive learning was especially apparent to me while I was reveling in Kindergarten Genius Hour presentations in Darcee Schneider’s classroom. Tiny humans confidently and proudly shared weeks of research on chosen topics. I marveled at each student’s passion, technology skills, and high-quality displays of new knowledge. Initially, it seemed like these were enrichment projects in which students developed a variety of 21st Century skills. Then, a boy shared a presentation on magnetism. In five minutes, he presented fourth grade level science curriculum content to his classmates and visiting parents that had taken me multiple days to develop when I taught fourth grade. If every student in my school had the chance to develop questions and explore personal areas of interests multiple times throughout the school year and share their knowledge with their classmates, would the general knowledge and essential skills of all students improve? Would curiosity remain constant from Kindergarten through fifth grade? Would our students learn how to develop better questions?
As I think about ways to develop a growth mindset in our school community, I wonder, “How can we develop skills in asking engaging, provocative questions that allow students to work out the answers.” This question leads to other questions and some possible solutions.
How can we create a climate that is ideal for creative and courageous ideas to emerge?
Possible Solution: Begin lessons with students’ questions that spark interest and curiosity. Invite students to pose tough questions, as long as they arise from the desire to gain knowledge (curiosity) as opposed to the need to exert control or dominance (power), or the need to impress others with their ability to outsmart classmates (social status). Rather than invalidating poor questions, teachers might consider responding with a “yes, and” approach, by attempting to find some bit of wisdom that you can build on as opposed to tearing down the students’ wondering.
How can we establish a school culture in which the reasonable risk of failure is understood to be the transactional cost of curiosity and that absorbing the occasional setback is worth the offsetting breakthroughs that result?
Possible Solution: Allow students opportunities to experiment and learn from results to foster innovation. We must positively acknowledge students for being curious and courageous, irrespective of whether they succeed. What matters most is that their actions had a legitimate shot at creating great opportunities.
How can we provide enough flexibility to allow for creative ways to learn the curriculum?
Possible Solution: Look at the end result and encourage curiosity about how best to attain it. If teachers want good work, they should give students rules and maps. If teachers want great work, they should give students an idea of the learning targets along with a few constraints, and then let students uncover the strategies that work best. Trust and give autonomy to students. They will learn more and at higher levels through pursuing passions and interests to attain their learning goals.
How can we convey the message that our school values interesting questions as much or possibly even more than knowing the answers?
Possible Solution: Be a champion of curiosity and model the willingness to ask questions and admit that you are both wise and ignorant. Pursue and collect knowledge and wisdom at least as often as you share it with students. Model the development, revision, and prioritization of questions.
How do we develop learning teams in order to foster curiosity and benefit from the power of collaboration to pose and answer questions?
Possible Solution: Admit that success hinges on collaborating with talented, bright, and diverse people. Leverage each other’s varying interests, skills, strengths, and past experiences to engage in inquiry and develop creative solutions to problems.
To develop a culture of growth mindset, we need to encourage questioning, tolerance, and experimentation that actively celebrates the exploration of the uncertain, unknown, and unfamiliar. Curiosity prompts us to challenge ourselves in new and different ways. Through taking risks to fail forward, we will all grow beyond our wildest visions.