George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Just Ask: Harnessing the Power of Student Curiosity

October 29, 2013
Photo credit: motomichi studio via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When was the last time you asked your students what they wanted to learn? Take a minute and think about that. In the go-go world of Common Core, Smarter Balance and other assessments, when do we focus on what kids want to learn?

I'm not suggesting that the entire curriculum should be focused on what the students want to learn. Instead, what about offering students a chance to explore something that interests them and that is related to the content? Making time for students to explore questions they find interesting and relevant to the subject could inspire them to commit more time and energy to a content area that, until now, they thought had no relevance to their lives.

Exploration, Discovery and Engagement

Here are four steps to make this happen in your classroom:

  1. Ask the students what they want to learn.
  2. Give them time to explore their ideas.
  3. Guide them through their exploration.
  4. Connect it to your curriculum.

The only part of this process that might be tough is step number four. But by tuning into your students and using your imagination, this connection can be made while the students are exploring their topics. Most teachers will find that the student choice almost always matches up with most of the standards. Kids are inquisitive by nature, and many of the standards support research and exploration. So, since you asked, make use of this excellent time for looking at what kids want to learn about and seeing how you can include that into your future lesson plans.

One great way to explore what students want to learn is to institute 20 Time or Genius Hour with your students. This is when you give them one day a week or a certain time each day to explore something they are passionate about and then share their discoveries with class after a set amount of time. My students are exploring areas of interest for them and will be doing TED-style talks for the whole school at the end of the year. I have never seen kids this excited about class time, research and presentations. Giving the students the power to explore what they want has shown me a tremendous amount of engagement in their projects -- and in the rest of the curriculum, too. They realize how special their project time is, so they don't want to waste other class time.

Since I started giving the students time to explore the things that interest them, I can focus on being a "guide on the side" to help them during their learning process. It is important for students to look more deeply into learning, and the best way to do that is by letting them learn something they want. In a way, students can help you craft your class curriculum if you just ask them a simple question:

"What do you want to learn today?"

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