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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Ignite Intellectual Curiosity in Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I personally have never seen a student that was not curious about something. I have seen many students who have suppressed their curiosity when they enter school to such an extent as to be nearly undetectable, but it is still there. Human beings are hardwired to be curious and being curious is a major activity of childhood and young adulthood (and yet recently more and more students would rather be curious-looking).

Mix It Up a Little

So if we notice students are not curious in our classes, then we should first look at what we are doing, or not doing, that might cause this to happen. Of course I have some suggestions of places to inspect first.

  • Is the classroom a bright, cheery, and inviting place?
  • In the design of our lessons, do we purposefully try to engage as many senses as possible?
  • As we teach, do we go to great lengths to include all students and not just the few who raise their hands?
  • Looking at our lessons, in general, is the student doing most of the talking and working?

If the answer to any of the questions is no, then getting students to be curious again is a relatively easy fix: just change what we are doing or not doing. If all of the answers above are yes, then the fix is still possible, but we have to patient. If we are trying to get our students to participate fully in the inquiry process, we have to remember that most likely, they have been conditioned to do the opposite of inquiry -- shut up and listen. Depending on the severity of the case, this may take a while to get them "unconditioned."

Inquire Within

Several years ago, I was involved with the Ford PAS program, which has an awesome business and STEM inquiry-based curriculum. We brought in 30 ninth graders, from three different schools, for a nine weeks summer course. The first week when students were presented the inquiry lessons, they did not know what to do. They just sat there, silent.

The Ford PAS folks had anticipated this and created a course to help student learn how to do inquiry. Since the instructors of the summer program had the students all day long, for the first week, they used this introductory lesson and basically trained them how to ask questions, brainstorm solutions, collaborate with their groups, and investigate possibilities. You would not have recognized the groups after nine weeks.

No one had to tell them to ask clarifying questions, critically analyze or research; it was automatic, and instead of silence, an energetic buzz of conversation abounded when they were given their final assignment.

My point in sharing this is that if you are just starting inquiry, and have all of your other teaching ducks in order, then just be patient and for heaven's sake, don't freak out because of the silence during the first inquiry lesson. You have to be willing to let them fail a few times before they get it. Students are smart and they will remember what it is like to be intellectually curious and they will appreciate the liberty that you are giving them.

The Standards and Testing

You may object by saying, "But I don't have time to play games or do projects (or to allow students to be curious). I have to teach them (drill them) on the content of the state standardized tests!" I say to you, "So...? What is your problem? The students are the ones that have to take the test, let them worry about it."

"Oh, so you get graded on how well your students perform? Then it is in your best interest to help the students reignite their curiosity so learning is easier and more enjoyable for everybody!"

Just so you understand where I come from, I believe that there are many things in the current educational system that need to be changed, however, state standardized testing is not one of them. I firmly believe that NCLB, although not perfect, is a great step in the right direction. I believe this because I have seen administrators and teachers, who, previously concerned only about local grades and behavior for some students, now are concerned with all students actually learning something.

Although we have a long way to go yet, at least the state standardized testing sets minimum standards for teachers to attain (notice I did not say students). The main hurdle now is to get teachers to quit teaching right up to the minimum standards, but instead, to inspire learning beyond the them.

Give Time to Explore, Think, and Discover

I am reading an interesting book by Daniel Willingham called, Why Don't Students Like School? that I think will help you reignite the flames of curiosity. Willingham gets to the crux of the matter right away: It is not the state testing that is doing the damage. It is the teacher's reflexive response to state testing. Too many teachers assume that the best and quickest way to get information into students' brains is to tell them what they should know and then expect them to know it.

Willingham also introduces in his book the concept that, "Memory is the residue of thought." This means that we remember most what we think about most. If the students are interested and inspired to think about things for prolonged periods, then memory is enhanced. This is where inquiry, constructivism, and curiosity come into play -- providing opportunities for students to think about what they are learning. In this way, memory is improved, students do better on standardized tests, and, guess what? Students enjoy learning! Problem solved.

How do you get your students to be curious and want to learn? Please share your thoughts.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Riazhaque's picture
Riazhaque
Associate Professor (Emeritus)

People will learn under a street lamp. Classroom paraphernalia is not necessary. In fact they are a distraction. Expose them to how we do things and then do them with them. This has to be logical not haphazard and it has to be complete from its beginning to now. Jumping from subject to subject or topic to topic does not help, in fact it hurts.

Consider students as intelligent beings, not morons or nincompoops. By jumping around and not sticking with a sequential stream of knowledge, we have disjointed and fragmented our whole stream of continuous evolving knowledge. This is such a serious issue that I have coined a slogan: ADD KNOWLEDGE TO THE LIST OF ENDANGERED SPECIES!

Want to know how much we have lost? Here is just one example: Zernick invented the phase contrast microscope in 1935 for which he received the Nobel Prize. This is the microscope which can show live organisms without killing, fixing or staining and you actually see them going about their daily business not unlike the way we go about our daily business. Seeing germs under this microscope is an eye opener not just of our physical eye but the analytical eyes of our mind.

How many people, or better yet teachers, now know of this microscope and how many have actually used it during their education and how many have actually used it or know how to use it to show germs to their students?

Here is how affective such a demonstration is: While in Iran as an advisor to one of their universities, I had free time so I went to the villages to enhance their hygiene knowledge by showing germs to boys and girls in schools.

(I am not sure if any one knows this but the Shah of Iran had set up separate schools for boys and girls which became schools for men and women during the night. These schools were run by young people recruited into Shah's "Wisdom Army" called Sepa-he-Danish in Persian. The deal that the Shah gave them was this: Since you are obligated to be in the regular army for two years, why not spend that time in my wisdom army instead and teach to boys and girls and to men and women in schools in remote villages).

Not having access to a phase contrast microscope, I ended up using the regular light microscope, equipped with the oil immersion lens.

After they finished seeing germs from their mouths and mine, I sneaked up on them asking them to bring some of the water that was running down the stream where they water their animals, washed their clothes and even washed their faces and hands etc.

After seeing what was in that water, a ten year old who had sat rather quiet all this time remarked: so that is why my mother is always sick. Need I say more?

Let us keep things simple and expose our students to how we as a collective human race got exposed to new findings in the past. We do not need to open expensive, architecturally proper and impressive schools. We just need to pass on what we know as knowledge and the skills which go with that knowledge anyway we can, even in the light of a street lamp if we have no other recourse.

I was saddened when Oprah ended up spending tons of money without looking at the curriculum and the manner in which it will be taught. She was keener on selecting bed linens for the students and the decor of their rooms than the curriculum.

Our world is in a turmoil and it is getting poorer, dangerous and
unsettling day by day. Peace will not come by having poor nations spend the money they do not have. Peace will come through knowledge where a simple microscope can generate more trust among nations than all the cluster bombs they are planting hoping to protect themselves.

Here then is a slogan I wish we all adopt:

PLANT A MICROSCOPE, NOT A CLUSTER BOMB!

Haque

Riazhaque's picture
Riazhaque
Associate Professor (Emeritus)

People will learn under a street lamp. Classroom paraphernalia is not necessary. In fact they are a distraction. Expose them to how we do things and then do them with them. This has to be logical not haphazard and it has to be complete from its beginning to now. Jumping from subject to subject or topic to topic does not help, in fact it hurts.

Consider students as intelligent beings, not morons or nincompoops. By jumping around and not sticking with a sequential stream of knowledge, we have disjointed and fragmented our whole stream of continuous evolving knowledge. This is such a serious issue that I have coined a slogan: ADD KNOWLEDGE TO THE LIST OF ENDANGERED SPECIES!

Want to know how much we have lost? Here is just one example: Zernick invented the phase contrast microscope in 1935 for which he received the Nobel Prize. This is the microscope which can show live organisms without killing, fixing or staining and you actually see them going about their daily business not unlike the way we go about our daily business. Seeing germs under this microscope is an eye opener not just of our physical eye but the analytical eyes of our mind.

How many people, or better yet teachers, now know of this microscope and how many have actually used it during their education and how many have actually used it or know how to use it to show germs to their students?

Here is how affective such a demonstration is: While in Iran as an advisor to one of their universities, I had free time so I went to the villages to enhance their hygiene knowledge by showing germs to boys and girls in schools.

(I am not sure if any one knows this but the Shah of Iran had set up separate schools for boys and girls which became schools for men and women during the night. These schools were run by young people recruited into Shah's "Wisdom Army" called Sepa-he-Danish in Persian. The deal that the Shah gave them was this: Since you are obligated to be in the regular army for two years, why not spend that time in my wisdom army instead and teach to boys and girls and to men and women in schools in remote villages).

Not having access to a phase contrast microscope, I ended up using the regular light microscope, equipped with the oil immersion lens.

After they finished seeing germs from their mouths and mine, I sneaked up on them asking them to bring some of the water that was running down the stream where they water their animals, washed their clothes and even washed their faces and hands etc.

After seeing what was in that water, a ten year old who had sat rather quiet all this time remarked: so that is why my mother is always sick. Need I say more?

Let us keep things simple and expose our students to how we as a collective human race got exposed to new findings in the past. We do not need to open expensive, architecturally proper and impressive schools. We just need to pass on what we know as knowledge and the skills which go with that knowledge anyway we can, even in the light of a street lamp if we have no other recourse.

I was saddened when Oprah ended up spending tons of money without looking at the curriculum and the manner in which it will be taught. She was keener on selecting bed linens for the students and the decor of their rooms than the curriculum.

Our world is in a turmoil and it is getting poorer, dangerous and
unsettling day by day. Peace will not come by having poor nations spend the money they do not have. Peace will come through knowledge where a simple microscope can generate more trust among nations than all the cluster bombs they are planting hoping to protect themselves.

Here then is a slogan I wish we all adopt:

PLANT A MICROSCOPE, NOT A CLUSTER BOMB!

Haque

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Danielle:

Kowledge is power, Ever heard that one before? Well you just demonstrated the truth of it. When you know more about the students you can tailor the learning experiences to their needs and interests. This sends multiple messages to the students, not the least of which that you want them to learn at their highest capacity. A word of caution, though, especially as students get older, a professional teacher/student relationship has to maintained. We can never forget that we are first a teacher and our expertise is to help the student learn, not to fix all their problems. There are other experts for that, to whom we can refer the students. But to put things in perspective, a student who feels successful in learning difficult things at school, will be better able to handle difficult things at home.

Keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson,
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I enjoyed this post great points and ideas. I found that one of the key ideas of having a student be interested is through getting to know them and their personal life. Being able to relate to a student is key because they feel comfortable to hold a discussion. it also helped to spike their interest because I was able to take material and relate it to them and their interests. Thanks everyone for sharing![/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Riazhaque:

John Dewey presented your same sentiments in 1938. The idea of experiential learning has been around awhile. Any scout master will be able to tell you that getting merit badges is only a part of the learning that goes on in Boy Scouts. The real learning occurs on the camp-outs and hikes, and those are the things the young men will take with them to adulthood.

Some students will learn under a streetlamp, or I like to say that some students will learn if you set them in a closet with a book. Learning is hardwired into students. However, behaviorism teaches us that unless academic learning is reinforced, at home, school, everywhere, then students will gravitate towards other learning that is not so productive.

Back to your point, however, I can't help asking why it has taken so long for "educators" to figure out how the brain remembers things. Experiential learning, project-based learning, and constructivism are on the right track, but if you walk into any school anywhere in the world, you will still find a majority of the teachers teaching as they were taught--lecture, paper-pencil, and chalk-board. Even if the school has all of the fancy teaching aids and technology, a lecture is still a lecture. The paraphernalia will not replace a creative, educational professional who knows how to get students to learn best. Edutopia is doing a wonderful job of trying to provide resources and ideas for such educators. We need more of these types of teachers and have a long way to go.

Thanks for your passion. We do need more microscopes.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]People will learn under a street lamp. Classroom paraphernalia is not necessary. In fact they are a distraction. Expose them to how we do things and then do them with them. This has to be logical not haphazard and it has to be complete from its beginning to now. Jumping from subject to subject or topic to topic does not help, in fact it hurts.

Consider students as intelligent beings, not morons or nincompoops. By jumping around and not sticking with a sequential stream of knowledge, we have disjointed and fragmented our whole stream of continuous evolving knowledge. This is such a serious issue that I have coined a slogan: ADD KNOWLEDGE TO THE LIST OF ENDANGERED SPECIES!

Want to know how much we have lost? Here is just one example: Zernick invented the phase contrast microscope in 1935 for which he received the Nobel Prize. This is the microscope which can show live organisms without killing, fixing or staining and you actually see them going about their daily business not unlike the way we go about our daily business. Seeing germs under this microscope is an eye opener not just of our physical eye but the analytical eyes of our mind.

How many people, or better yet teachers, now know of this microscope and how many have actually used it during their education and how many have actually used it or know how to use it to show germs to their students?

Here is how affective such a demonstration is: While in Iran as an advisor to one of their universities, I had free time so I went to the villages to enhance their hygiene knowledge by showing germs to boys and girls in schools.

(I am not sure if any one knows this but the Shah of Iran had set up separate schools for boys and girls which became schools for men and women during the night. These schools were run by young people recruited into Shah's "Wisdom Army" called Sepa-he-Danish in Persian. The deal that the Shah gave them was this: Since you are obligated to be in the regular army for two years, why not spend that time in my wisdom army instead and teach to boys and girls and to men and women in schools in remote villages).

Not having access to a phase contrast microscope, I ended up using the regular light microscope, equipped with the oil immersion lens.

After they finished seeing germs from their mouths and mine, I sneaked up on them asking them to bring some of the water that was running down the stream where they water their animals, washed their clothes and even washed their faces and hands etc.

After seeing what was in that water, a ten year old who had sat rather quiet all this time remarked: so that is why my mother is always sick. Need I say more?

Let us keep things simple and expose our students to how we as a collective human race got exposed to new findings in the past. We do not need to open expensive, architecturally proper and impressive schools. We just need to pass on what we know as knowledge and the skills which go with that knowledge anyway we can, even in the light of a street lamp if we have no other recourse.

I was saddened when Oprah ended up spending tons of money without looking at the curriculum and the manner in which it will be taught. She was keener on selecting bed linens for the students and the decor of their rooms than the curriculum.

Our world is in a turmoil and it is getting poorer, dangerous and

unsettling day by day. Peace will not come by having poor nations spend the money they do not have. Peace will come through knowledge where a simple microscope can generate more trust among nations than all the cluster bombs they are planting hoping to protect themselves.

Here then is a slogan I wish we all adopt:

PLANT A MICROSCOPE, NOT A CLUSTER BOMB!

Haque[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Carol:

I agree with you that creativity elimination is not the goal of public education. I would like to think that most teachers would at least tolerate creativity from their students. However, when teachers are so focused on control (especially in the elementary and junior high grades) when students are given opportunities to be creative, they wait for the teacher to tell them what to do and how to do it. It is no wonder that when your students are asked to draw something, they don't know how to do it unless they are told how to do it. If they are given a chance to explore and experiment with art, by the time they get to high school it is sufficiently repressed so their creative artistic talent remains at the first or second grade level. They can't even do stick figures. Art is not the only thing that suffers from a lack of creativity. Science, math and ELA have similar complaints.

Hang in there.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]I confess, I have a Cinematography class as well as teaching technology-associated affairs. I argued (above) that art is a good way to maintain an element of creativity in the curriculum. The main article however, argues for integrating creativity into project learning modules and implies this is adequate to instill creativity necessary for the purposes of k-12 education.

If the article espouses eliminating the arts in favor of integrated creative exercise, it makes some dangerous assumptions.

First of all, it assumes adults in general to have the creative capacity to design and foster this activity. Second, it assumes the ability to judge creative effort.

On the capacity issue, I believe education in general to have several pathologies. One of them is misunderstanding creative processes on an institutional level. The article steps dangerously close to this precipice. That plays into the second count because it presumes knowledge of a field to be - and here is my real ontological problem ;-) - complete and easily measured by rubric when it is really a matter of art in the sense of "what is real art." You can give me a rubric that asks me to measure art, and I will measure it.

On the count of institutional pathology; I passionately believe the ability of the general population (administrators are general population) to be critical of art is laughable. I'm not going to support that because it could get offensive.

I'm not saying the main article is wrong about the creative nature of project-based learning. I'm just saying that getting off the ground with it in the US is a huge challenge institutionally. I don't believe the human capital exists if we tell the art teaching staff to get jobs packing tomatoes.

When I introduce sketching panels for storyboarding to my freshman class and ask who in the class has been exposed to drawing in one or two point perspective, the answer is 2 out of 25. When I draw an example on the board, another 1 hand goes up. This means that in 9 years of art, only 10% of them can draw the interior of a room. My students come from all over the district (265,000 students), so I know there are 1 or 2 7th grade art teachers, teaching perspective. This is not just my opinion. I have asked the 2D and 3D teachers who teach the AP courses about their experiences. Their opinion is similar to mine.

One more observation. A couple of weeks ago I heard Ken Robinson speak about how our system crushes creativity out of the student population. It isn't deliberate, but it is true nonetheless. Expecting the people that think they are actually working to create a population of creative, smart kids while simultaneously stamping on their little souls, to implement this change is disingenuous.

Saying all it takes is lesson planning while the structure of the organization is designed to push in the exact opposite direction is self-defeating.[/quote]

Riazhaque's picture
Riazhaque
Associate Professor (Emeritus)

The thing of utmost importance now is professional training of teachers, to get them out of their rut and also from the lesson plans enforced on them by business entities calling them "these meet the national guidelines". The words national guidelines are very powerful which even stop all of us from looking at the national guidelines themselves. I looked at them a while back. They are Mickey mouse and not real guidelines, most of them hastily introduced after the Sputnik.

What is needed now most desperately is professional development of teachers, filling the gaps in their background left when they wee taught by watered down courses or when certain courses were altogether eliminated saying, they are not going to need these any longer. These are yesterday's story. Our student need to know what is now. Not really. they need to know the continuous stream of knowledge from its beginning to now. What educators do not realize that while they due to their background can hop skip and jump many areas, a beginning student does not have that facility and it is us teachers who have to give them the whole story from the beginning to now. I am doing it for science where everything abuts science including all the essential instruments and procedures are displayed and demonstrated and are also available to the students to practice on. We do it for music, art and sports, why not for science and then complain that our students are not showing interest in science beyond what they need to do for graduation.

What is obvious to me that ALL STUDENTS NEED INTEGRATED KNOWLEGE NOT BITS AND PIECES OF SCATTERED INFORMATION. See website: www.centerforintegrativelearning.org. There is also a link to the Science Skills Center on the site.

The point I am trying to make is that what I am doing is not that complicated or expensive and if we use what I have done as a model, we can transplant this idea the world over and really reform education. I am also convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that unless we fix education, none of our personal, local and global societal problems will go away. They will only get worse.

There is also another point which may bruise our egos a lot which is this: We need to educate our students not impress them with how much more than them we know. We also need wean them and kick them out of the nest so they could fly on their own. Unfortunately that too depends on how well we prepare them for their independent flight. Getting a few good grades and fumbling with abstract notions they are not yet ready to deal with will not make them independent thinkers. In that case they rather stick close to the nest and even upon graduation look for post doc positions than risk their own free flight.

There is an important learning model that Nature puts before us to study and mimic if we are to teach affectively. That model is the just born infant who learns the most complex of skills i.e., speaking and making sense on his or her own. No teaching required. As teachers we need to let our students learn on their own; just expose them to what they need to learn and more thereby expanding their horizons. Leave the rest to the students and their innate learning capacities. Everyone learns, even autistic children learn. they have to because learning is intertwined with survival and survival is the first and foremost function of every living thing including the primordial molecule which eventually became the self replicating and self organizing living structure.

Jennifer Hallam's picture

Ben--I love this post. I am currently working on a project called PEOPLE ROCK! It's a music series dedicated to inspiring kids to reach their full potential through songs about people who have "rocked" the world in different ways. In addition to introducing listeners to inspiring figures, PEOPLE ROCK! promotes qualities like curiosity, critical thinking, and creativity. I think you'll like it! Please check out PEOPLE ROCK! on Kickstarter.com [http://bit.ly/PEOPLEROCK] and if you like what you see, hear, and read help us spread the word! Thanks! Jenn

Riazhaque's picture
Riazhaque
Associate Professor (Emeritus)

I am sorry but here is only one way to hold your nose - reaching it directly from the front, from left or right does not matter. Instead of doing that, we pride in holding our nose from going behind our neck. It is a convoluted way around and many may not have arms long enough to reach their nose but that seems to be what we are professing our students and teachers to learn to do and if they succeed, they have arisen above the crowd worthy of our respect.

Learning and teaching is simple. Leave the kid alone just expand his or her exposure to a variety of situations, hopefully with some sort of order or chronology.

My grandson's eye sight is 20/200 and he does not see color plus he is sensitive to light. He has to wear special glasses to go out or be in the son. To me he is more normal than any children I have met.

He knows all about birds. For his birthday, he wanted an incubator where he is now hatching eggs and he is a proud caretaker of a number of chicken, ducks, pigeons etc. He draws better than a seeing eye person.

Yesterday he went to a local art fair where he met an older gentleman who carves all sort of birds, owls etc. the carvings are very intricate and detailed. Takes him at least 6 to 8 months to complete one. My grandson stayed glued to that booth. He will come away for a while and then run back again. I do not know how he was able to find the right booth among at least 100 other booths. At the end of the fair, he stayed around helping the older gentleman with his grand children cleaning up all the wood shaving the artist had accumulated. That was a sight to see. So involved and so committed.

My grandson is only 7 going on 8.

I believe we have to get off quoting Dewey and others. Piaget has done more harm to education of our children by requiring that all children be tested and seen where on his scale of development they fit.

We also have to look into learning disability and ADD etc.
We have to know for sure; are they real or contrived?

The main function of every living thing is survival and that requires learning to acclimatize within the environment the living things are exposed to. Survival is not just of the body but also of the psyche and the ego. Body can learn to survive by hook or crook; go see Peruvian children on the street making and selling baskets and even begging if they have to, but it is the psyche and the ego which needs nurturing to become a whole creative human and that requires exposure to the whole of the universe, not just to our contrived curriculum...

Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

This is a very important topic. Students ARE naturally curious, and it's up to us, as educators, to make sure they stay this way. I find that providing them with freedom through project-based learning gives students the opportunity to explore in a safe environment. Other great ways of igniting this curiosity is to shake things up every now and then. Re-imagine your curriculum and how you deliver it! Provide more opportunities for group thinks, collaborative work, brainstorming, and design thinking.

My only question is, how do you maintain a safe environment for curiosity? One where students know it's okay to fail. This is the tricky part!

Jeffrey Benson's picture

This is a great, important conversation. I always want the teachers I work with to follow the lead of their students' thinking, and for the teachers to be passionate about what they teach--write lesson plans for tomorrow to catch their growing edges. When we impose volumes of curriculum that are bound to standardized tests given at prescribed times, we diminish teachers ability to follow student thinking and to follow their passions. If we are to see teaching as a profession, we have to structure schooling to free up what a professional teacher can do: observe the real students in front of them each day, have the time and relationships to expose their current thinking, and then make curriculum decisions based on their growing edges. We don't train, supervise or structure our educational systems to enhance that ideal--instead we impose curriculum based on a presumed average child and test only what you could predict an assumed average child can get up top speed on in a given time frame. Yes, that is the least generous description of the common core and standardized tests one could make--because I want to point out how much those two powerful forces diminish what could be going on in classes: professional teachers knowing the real kids, knowing their subject, and knowing human development to ignite students passionate involvement. Our great teachers now do this despite the conditions of imposed curriculum and imposed testing; the rest of the profession, and the kids, are struggling. If we are to do what the article states "...The main hurdle now is to get teachers to quit teaching right up to the minimum standards, but instead, to inspire learning beyond the them..." I am positive that current conditions of educational structures undermine that goal we all share.

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