Reviving Curiosity

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the curious look

naturally curious

“Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly.”  Arnold Edinborough

Curiosity is healthy and should be fostered in our classrooms.  According to Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiments, children, motivated by curiosity, will instruct themselves.  Two additional caveats are that the children have to be in groups and adult intervention must be lifted. 

I hoped to catch a glimpse of that same natural, refreshing curiosity as I worked with an 8th grade English class just before our holiday break.  The students were working on a project and were asked to find 1940s music on the web to get a sense of the times and to use as a reference for their project.  Apparently, each student had a list of such period music from prior research, so they weren’t starting from scratch.  Surely students allowed to look for music on the web would respond with interest.

Instead, they seemed frustrated immediately and when they realized they would have to dig deep to find a particular audio clip, they gave up almost as instantly.  They wanted the formula, or better yet, the exact answer (go to website XYZ).  After searching for five minutes, a few students even told me their music was not out there.  “So you mean to tell me in 5 minutes, you’ve seen it all?” I questioned.  This reminded me of the commercial several years back about “finishing” the Internet. 

Disappointed by their lack of initiative and curiosity, my first reaction was to blame it on their lack of perseverance.  You know, kids just want to take the easy way out.  Next I wondered if they just didn’t know where to begin (I would gladly help them if this was the case), but they didn’t want tips on how to search; they wanted the url of the exact website. 

I began to wonder — Have we as educators, actually blocked natural curiosity?  Are we enabling students, and possibly perpetuating the problem?  Students are used to seeking the immediate and single correct answer.  How did they get this way?  They were trained – Yes, by us.  Think about the textbook questions often assigned – definitions, short answer, and multiple choice.  Quick responses – the kind that are either right or wrong. Many students have experienced this since their first years of school.  So when we suddenly ask them to go off and explore, it doesn’t feel natural and they are disoriented– at first.  We have actually squelched their curiosity. 

The next day began with my pep talk about searching for the music, including reminders that patience would be needed.  Holding strong to my refusal to give them any specific sites, I watched the results.  They came through.  Brandon was successful at finding his music first.  He began to share tips with the others.  It seemed that once the sharing began, the curiosity and confidence kicked in.  I was relieved, but it was way too close of a call…

How can we foster curiosity in classrooms?  Create an atmosphere in which the process is just as important as the final answer or product.  Let them have the freedom to discover the “answer” and understand there is more than one way to get there and sometimes more than one destination.  Lift adult intervention and allow students to share their discoveries with their peers, as Brandon did.  It may not seem natural at first, but don’t give up.  Don’t stifle curiosity, encourage it.

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