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Curiosity on Steroids

I am a huge fan of Daniel Pink. I have immense respect for his intellect and have enjoyed many of his books and other writings. It should be no surprise that I subscribe to his newsletter. This week's edition included some musings on the topic of rethinking high school. (Hum, you think?)

Pink cites and links an article by Bernie Bleske, who refers to himself as "another frustrated teacher." In his article, "The Absurd Structure of High School," Bleske laments about the traditional 50 minute cycle of disconnected instructional periods, stating "that breadth of content comes at the cost of depth of understanding. The fractured nature of the work, the short amount of time provided and the speed of change all undermine learning beyond the superficial." And then he makes the following bold, and 100% accurate assessment: "We are married to a system that has not been properly reevaluated for 21st century capabilities and capacities."

You go, Bernie!

Unlike the vast majority of folks who identify a problem of practice and limit their discussion to complaint, Bleske offers a suggestion; an idea that is profoundly simple, one that would be met with all manner of dissent, and is brilliant in what it could offer. Rather than asking students to engage at an adequate level with six or seven disconnected topics on a daily basis (or even within a "blocked" schedule of alternating days), what if we relieved them of that burden? In addressing the question he poses, "why should each student attend every class every day all year long?", Bleske suggests that "students should have two long classes each day for six to eight weeks. They should come to school in the morning and intensely study a single subject—ancient history, a few Shakespeare plays, cell biology, a specific math concept, and so on. In the afternoon, another subject for a few more hours. When the term ends, they move on to another subject."

I can hear it now! I can see actual faces of former colleagues who would jump on this idea and proclaim it to be a non-starter. "Students can't focus on a single topic that long!" "My subject can't be taught that way!" "We could never get all of the content covered and the learning targets addressed in such a schedule!" Rather than stopping to consider the merits of the idea, even for a second, the initial reaction is certain to be dismissive. That's too bad.

What if . . . ?

Let me be clear, I am not endorsing Bernie's idea, or even suggesting that it isn't fraught with shortfalls and details that would require thoughtful consideration. What I am saying is that the blind practices we are holding on to are no longer effective. Given that reality, thank you, Bernie. Thank you for offering a suggestion for us to grapple with; an idea to adopt, revise or dismiss. Thank you for exercising the necessary degree of professional courage to swim against the prevailing current by asking . . .

What if ?

Now, back to addressing the title of this post, "Curiosity on Steroids." Think about Bleske's suggestion simply through the lens of curiosity. Ignore, at least for the time being, all of the pitfalls and challenges of his idea. Instead, ask yourself "how might Bernie's structure support the development and utilization of student curiosity as an instructional tool? What could that look like?"

What could that look like, indeed?

Let's take Bernie's first topical example - ancient history. Imagine a teacher saying to his or her class:

"For the purposes of this unit of study, we will define ancient history as the history of the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean area and the Near East up to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476.

"Here are the required learning targets for our exploration of ancient history. What I want you to do is to decide what you would like to study in depth about some aspect of our definition. Ask yourself this question: 'What I am curious about regarding this period of history?' Possible topics might include the role of conflict in establishing political prominence. Or, maybe you're curious about the role of the arts immediately prior to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Maybe you're interested in understanding dominant economic systems during some specific period of this time. Or, you could look at the migration patterns of significant populations and the political implications they faced. The options are wide open.

"Once you've identified your topic, you and I will work together to design an assessment model to demonstrate that you have satisfied the targets. You can work independently. However, I'm certain many of you will be interested in similar topics. As that is the case, I encourage you to work in collaborative groups.

"Brain storm. Wonder. Follow your curious inclinations. . . . " (You get the idea.)

As the teacher completes the explanation of his/her expectations, can you imagine the anticipatory reaction of the students? I can!

  • "What? I can choose what to study?"

  • "What's happening here? My interests matter?"

  • "This sounds like I can be a partner in my learning, rather than being expected to be compliant with someone else's expectations."

  • "I get to own my learning."

  • Finally, "thank you Mr./Mrs. Smith. You won't be disappointed by taking this approach to my learning."

Interest is heightened. Student investment and engagement are elevated. The degree of student relevance toward what is being learned reaches an unprecedented level. Interest. Engagement. Relevance. There is no downside.

Just allow yourself to consider these outcomes. Focus solely on these, regardless of the inherent complexities the specific suggestion, and ask . . . speculate . . . imagine . . . wonder.

What if . . . ? How do we get there?

Thanks, again, Bernie.

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