June 8, 2016 by

Three Steps to Building Curiosity in the Classroom

By Howard Pitler

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”
―Carl Sagan

ASCD Conference on Teaching ExcellenceWatch a toddler at play for 10 minutes, and you will be convinced that Carl Sagan was right—every kid starts out curious and yearning to explore. Contrast that with the experience of a typical high school student in history or math class. Where is the sense of wonder and enthusiasm for learning? What do we do in the classroom to “beat it out of them,” as Sagan suggests?

What would it look like if we taught toddlers to walk using a process similar to the one we use to teach math or history in school? First, we would talk with them about what they learned in the crawling unit and explain the steps in the walking process. Next, we would have them take a quiz on the fundamentals of walking. Toddlers who didn’t pass the walking quiz would be moved back to remedial crawling, likely at the expense of fine arts or PE. Then, we would have them actually try walking in class a few times, with some assistance. After that, of course, would be the independent practice phase. This practice would be done in their bedrooms as homework, without any guidance. If the toddlers were able to walk the next day in class, they would be rewarded and get to move on to the running unit. If the toddlers could not walk independently, they would be reprimanded and then also move on to the running unit. The assembly line waits for no one.

Nurturing and developing the natural curiosity found in toddlers should be the number one job of educators. A quick review of the “Learning and Innovation Skills” section of the Framework for 21st Century Learning highlights the 4Cs: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. These 4Cs are built on an underlying foundation of curiosity. Why does ______ do that? How can I _____? Is there a better way to ____?

I propose a three-step process to help build a more curious classroom.

Step 1: Begin with the Question

A classroom that encourages curiosity is one in which a variety of different exploration strategies are encouraged. Can you think of another way to ____? What might happen if ____? Start with a question that is interesting and might not have a clear and simple answer—one that draws on multiple disciplines. A good question should have what George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, refers to as an “information gap.” Loewenstein explains that “the information-gap theory views curiosity as arising when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.”

Step 2: Ensure Foundational Knowledge

It’s hard for learners to be curious about something of which they have zero knowledge. There needs to be some basic knowledge on which to build. As soon as we know something, however, our curiosity increases and we want to know more. We want to branch out and look at other possibilities. Loewenstein refers to this as “priming the pump.” He writes, “Because curiosity is more likely to occur and will tend to be stronger as information is accumulated, interest, in effect, primes the pump of curiosity.” When done well, curiosity becomes an addiction. As Einstein once said, “I am neither clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.”

Step 3: Communicate and Collaborate

Although some innovations and creations are made in isolation, it is generally helpful to talk with others to work on the question, pose a variety of solutions, and problem solve together. Build and nurture a classroom environment that enables and rewards collaboration. Five rows of five chairs with the teacher in the front of the room expounding knowledge is a model that represses rather than encourages curiosity. Think carefully about the design of the classroom. Form will define function.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.” There aren’t fairy godmothers in the real world. There are, however, great teachers. Great teachers can give their students that most useful gift of curiosity.

Join me for my session, Curiouser and Curiouser: Teaching Creativity in the Classroom, at the Conference on Teaching Excellence, July 8-10 in New Orleans. Click here to register now.
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Howard Pitler is a dynamic facilitator, speaker, and instructional coach with a proven record of success spanning four decades. Pitler is an ASCD Faculty member and the author of several ASCD publications including Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works, and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd edition. Contact Pitler at hpitler@gmail.com or on his website.