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Addressing "What" Through Curiosity

When we think about the term "what" in the field of education, we typically go to the topic of curriculum; what should be learned and how should one learn it. The decisions regarding the curriculum, the "what," are generally made externally by policy makers and others who are detached from the classroom. While this may assure a degree of predicability and a common experience for students, it falls short in the departments of desired relevancy and motivation. It relies on compliance and standardization, while failing to embrace the interests and needs of the learner. It neglects to ask the learner "what are you curious about?" And, it overlooks the tremendous power and opportunity that curiosity affords in addressing both the content and the delivery of the "what."

I challenge us all to rethink how we traditionally approach satisfying "what" by moving it closer to the classroom and the heart of the learner. It is abundantly possible to address the content standards that are externally imposed, while tapping the curiosity of our students.

We want students to be able to think, not just memorize. Rather than being expected to find the “right” answer to questions, students need to question the conventional answers through posing questions of their own, based on what they are curious about. In my book, The Education Kids Deserve, I encourage the application of four questions students should habitually ask: questions that should become the fulcrum of the learning that occurs daily.

The first question students should ask is "What?" What am I curious about? What would intrigue me and be something I'd really like to know? The second question is "What if?" What might be the outcome or possible impact of pursuing this line of inquiry? This is followed by "So, what?", the third question. Does this matter? Am I the only person who cares about this. Does pursuing this curiosity matter? And, finally the fourth question - "Now what?" What are the logical next steps in this exercise? What might this uncover or lead to? What can I anticipate might happen next?

The altered role of the teacher will guide and facilitate his/her students through a deliberate process of addressing this questions. Doing this will not only give students permission to unleash and utilize their curiosity, it will develop the skills of critical thinking. They will be engaged in problem formulation (hypothesizing, strategizing), research (collecting data and identifying resources), interpretation (analysis and evolution) and communication (constructing arguments and the organization of ideas, while anticipating and foreshadowing outcomes.) These are very sophisticated intellectual skills; skills that are essential for 21st century students to master. The simple decision to intentionally promote the curiosity of the students, gives the teacher new and profound opportunities to redefine his/her instruction and to capitalize on their relationships with their students.

Recently, I had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. (Seems random, I know. Stay with me.) While the food was delicious, my curiosity was peaked by the belly dancer. (Stop smirking.) She moved through the room with graceful athleticism as she offered the patrons a glimpse inside the culture she represents. As she entertained us, I was intrigued (curious) about two things about her performance. First, was the phenomenal muscle control she displayed, a cornerstone of this artistic style, as she isolated her abdominal muscles in a way that should be impossible. The second thing I noticed, and became curious about, was the resemblance of her hip movements and hand gestures to those characteristic of Hawaiian hula.

Now, imagine me as a student in a human anatomy class. With the cooperation and support of my teacher, I might propose an inquiry project studying human muscular systems through my curiosity about the effective isolation of the dancer's abdominal muscles. My teacher would guide me through the consideration of the four "what" questions, and support me in the development of a framework that would address my curiosity in this academic setting. Key to developing this project would be the identification of specific course learning targets and how those could be satisfied though this self-directed study, and what key benchmarks would need to be addressed as evidence that satisfaction of these targets had occurred.

Or, imagine me in a course studying comparative cultures. Might not my curiosity about the perceived similarities of Lebanese belly dancing and Hawaiian hula serve as a viable launch pad for my learning; learning that I would find personally meaningful while utilizing similar protocols regarding structure and outcomes described above? Absolutely!

In these examples, the role of both the teacher and the student have changed significantly. The teacher relinquishes traditional control over the course content and serves, instead, as the knowledgeable resource and facilitator of my inquiry. As the student, my focus shifts from complying with stated expectations and pre-planned activities. I now am in the driver's seat and the focus becomes the satisfaction of "what do I want to know?" Both of these altered perspectives suggest a "win win." When we empower students to own their learning, when we empower teachers to facilitate, rather than dictate, learning, we may find ourselves on the cusp of meaningful educational change, and the critical rebalancing of seemingly contrary influences.

As a learner . . . what are you curious about? There must be something. In truth, it's a lot. Let's capitalize on your curiosity and get serious about the enterprise of authentic and relevant learning.

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