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Curiosity: The Curricular Cindarella | Ecology of Education

Curiosity: The Curricular Cindarella

Curiously, curiosity is no-where to be found in reform measures being debated today.  Rather, curiosity is left to scrub the proverbial floors of our education institutions.  It’s the forgotten and malnourished stepdaughter of NCLB and mistreated stepsister of Race to the Top.  Click on some of the speeches by President Obama and Secretary Duncan and and then search for “curiosity”.  You won’t find it, anywhere.

Yet, in order to promote lifelong learning, it is a, if not THE, necessary ingredient.  It is the high octane fuel of learning. It is a glass slipper.

In her report, It Only Killed One Cat: The Role of Curiosity in the Classroom, Betsey Appleton provides a nice overview of literature on the topic. Despite research supporting it’s effect on learning, curiosity has seen its ups and downs in our popular culture mindset.

  • Greeks gave curiosity a bad rap via Pandora’s legendary earthen jar. (Full disclosure: my daughter’s name is Pandora and we do encourage curiosity and think its quite fun to label things, “Pandora’s ______”.)
  • Proverbially speaking, curiosity brought death to the feline, insinuating, it is best to be ponder-free.
  • George W. Bush’s reputation for having none hinted it may be worthwhile to possess some.
  • Obama highlights it as a necessary component of progress.

I can’t help but think: show me a curious kid and I’ll show you a learner.

So, what’s the goal of education? To be learned or to be a learner?

If “life long learning” is “happily ever after”, we’re only in the part of the story when the reigning maidens of the household, Standardization and Testing, are still corroborating against our fair heroine, Wonderella.  Unfortunately, our sterling prince of reform seems to be more smitten by the stepsisters. No doubt we want them as part of the family, but I’m not convinced they’re the ones we want sitting on the throne wearing crowns. Or making the final decisions about what to do with teaching and learning.

The curious piece for me is that students arrive at school immensely curious — inquisitive, motivated, and prone to exploration. Anyone who’s been responsible for a preschooler for any length of time knows that they are hardwired with a singular directive: find the novel and test if its dangerous. This should work to our immense advantage when it comes to constructing learning environments. If we can put someone on the moon, surely we can find a way to capitalize on student innate curiosity. But, as Mark Twain quipped, ” One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity nothing beats teamwork.” Getting to this point in the story has been a group effort. Getting out will be one too.

This, of course, is where it gets messy, the moment in the plot when we look at our poor soot-covered Wonderella and think, how? How can we get this poor, abused, natural beauty coiffed, to the ball and in the arms of the prince? It will take nothing less than the Fairy Godmother of Reframed Debates.

  • What if we were to begin with the assumption that kids want to learn, that they are in fact predisposed to doing so?
  • What if we constructed learning environments and curricula in order to cultivate and refine the innate curiosity of kids?
  • What if we learned the art of inquiry in teaching?
  • What if our goal was to cultivate life long learning?

There are no clear and simple answers to these questions. Our push for standards, accountability, and graphs denoting progress have forced us to produce sterile and scripted classrooms that dwell in the known.  I suspect we want students to stick their oars into the unknown, to wrestle with ideas and concepts that pique their interests, and roam the wilds of their creative imaginations.

(Just to be sure, I’m in no way advocating for lack a academic challenge or rigor or for limiting student exposure to content.  I am arguing in favor of opportunities for students to apply what they’ve learned to novel situations that are interesting and compelling to them. I am arguing for giving kids a bit more free range, to encourage question asking, and to make learning more robustly real, practical, and personal.)

At the heart of innovation is imagination, and imagination is born of curiosity.  That simple question, “Hmmm, I wonder. . . ?”

I wonder if Wonderella were to become a member of the educational royal family, might she change the world for the better?

Image: Wiki Commons

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Author:Jason Flom

Learner. Educator. Reader. Writer. Cyclist. Part-time Polyanna. Husband. Daddy. Founder, Ecology of Education. Director of Learning Platforms, Q.E.D. Foundation. Twitter: @JasonFlom. LinkedIn: Jason Flom; Edutopia's Green School Group; and doing dishes while pretending to be a professional underground rapper. "I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion." Kurt Hahn