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What Would You Like to Learn Today?

What would you like to learn today?

That is a question that you won’t hear in the vast majority of American classrooms. After all, there are standards to meet and learning targets to hit. There are tests that we need to get the kids ready for. There’s simply no time, or room in the schedule, to bother with such a silly notion. Imagine asking kids “what would you like to learn today?” Isn’t that a form of abdicating professional responsibility? What teacher could possibly consider doing that?

In a standardized system of public education, we can’t seem to be bothered with student curiosity. That’s a shame.

Children are naturally curious. It is due to their unbridled curiosity about the world around them that allows children to learn. In 2007, researchers logging questions asked by children aged 14 months to five years found they asked an average of 107 questions an hour. There is so much to know and understand! Kids naturally follow their curiosity to get them there.

Until they arrive at the schoolhouse steps. Questioning diminishes significantly once kids start school. Susan Engel, a leading international researcher and authority on curiosity in children, has charted this decline in student questioning. She has found the youngest children in American suburban elementary schools asked between two and five questions in a two-hour period.

Here’s the sad news. As kids get older they give up asking altogether. Engel has observed two-hour stretches in fifth grade classrooms where 10 and 11-year-olds failed to ask their teacher a single question.

Wait. It gets worse. She reports observing a ninth grader raise her hand to ask if there were any places in the world where no one made art. The teacher stopped her mid-sentence with, “Zoe, no questions now, please; it’s time for learning.”

Schools are killing curiosity. They aren’t doing this intentionally. But, it’s happening because student curiosity is brushed aside by the pressures of covering the required content in the limited time that is available. Quoting Dr. Engel, “When you visit schools in many parts of the world it can be difficult to remember they are full of active, intellectual children, because no one is talking about their inner mental lives. How well they behave, and how they perform seem much more important to many people in the educational communities. Often educational bureaucracies have shunted curiosity to the side.”

It doesn’t really matter what you want to learn. What matters is the required content that you must be taught.

Ignoring the curiosity of children isn’t just a sad reality or an unfortunate byproduct of our overburdened educational system. Dr Prachi Shah, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician and research scientist at the University of Michigan, says: “Promoting curiosity in children, especially those from environments of economic disadvantage, may be an important, under-recognized way to address the achievement gap. Promoting curiosity is a foundation for early learning that we should be emphasizing more when we look at academic achievement.”

Read that again. “Promoting curiosity in children, especially those from environments of economic disadvantage, may be an important, under-recognized way to address the achievement gap.”

Back to my original question: “what would you like to learn today?” It’s not just a good idea. It’s practical. It supports student engagement and creates a relevant experience for kids. And, it’s doable. I know, because I have done it. In fact, it worked so well that it became a cornerstone of my instructional practice while I was in the classroom. In last weeks post, 1992, I referenced two articles I had written some years ago. Both are available to download from the first page of my website. “FREE Download 2” specifically outlines my practice of asking kids what they want to know. I encourage my readers to check this out as a practical example of what is possible and how it is complimentary to the requirements of teaching core curricular concepts. Further, I believe it is something that can be adapted to virtually any content area.

To answer a question I posed in the opening paragraph of this piece, “Isn’t that a form of abdicating professional responsibility?”, the definitive response is “no.” In fact, it is my informed opinion, based on three and a half decades serving kids in public education, that it is precisely what we need to be doing. We need to find opportunities to match what we know we’re required to teach to the curiosity of our learners. A professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University, Paul Howard-Jones, states that humans learn from novel situations and that curiosity is important to that process. “Children should be prompted and encouraged to ask questions even though that can be challenging for the teacher,” he says. “We do need to find some time for questions during the day. There is not enough time in schools for creativity and following up on curiosity.”

I encourage any classroom practitioners or school-based leaders reading this blog to give the construction of curriculum based on the interests and questions of children a try. It’s actually very gratifying and is a lot of fun. More importantly, it represents a huge step in the direction of providing students the education kids deserve.

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