How do we harness kids drive to know, to understand, and to engage in the world and its ideas? That is a question posed by Wendy Ostroff in her new book Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms. She states, “Curiosity is about being aware and open, checking things out, experimenting, and interacting within one’s surroundings. In a classroom grounded in curiosity, teachers have the unique opportunity of being able to mine students’ deepest held wonder, making their attention natural and effortless, and allowing them to fully engage.”
I have often heard teachers complain about students who seem to be “unmotivated” to learn. The teacher finds it difficult to engage them in the lesson and at times the students show behaviors that disrupt the classroom. When asked, students may respond that the lesson is “boring” or they might not understand what is being taught. Students may not have the prerequisite knowledge or skills to attach the new learning to, or they may already have a solid foundation of information on the topic, and therefore “zone out” or occupy their time in other ways. Teachers may note that these students seem to lack intrinsic motivation and do not always respond well to extrinsic rewards either. Some students may find the lesson difficult and more of a chore, especially if they are a student with some kind of learning disability.
So what can we do to turn this scenario around?
One way is by giving them tasks that matter to them. I was recently visiting a school and saw a class of second graders walking through the hall excitedly. They were going on a “field trip” along with one of the school’s high school classrooms. Basically, they were walking to the creek that runs by the school property and working with a science class on an aquatic unit. Every one of those second graders could not wait! Not only were they going to be allowed to collect water samples from an area near them, they were going to be doing it with HIGH SCHOOLERS!! These older brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends that they know or recognize (and also emulate). They could not wait to be a part of this learning experience. They were going to help analyze the water samples and see what was in the water and why that mattered. In this lesson, they were learning scientific words, procedures, and how to work collaboratively with others. The high school students were solidifying the scientific vocabulary and procedural methods they had been taught. They were also teaching the young students and helping them to discover some things they already knew, and they were all discovering new information about that particular area together. Were any of the students (young or teens) bored? Not at all! Were they learning? Absolutely. Was a natural curiosity sparked within them? That was more than evident. Would they remember this lesson and be able to talk about it and refer back to this experience? Yes, over and over for a long time to come.
Yes, something like this may take some time. It takes you out of the four walls of your classroom and may even take you a bit out of your comfort zone. However, look at the benefits of this authentic learning task! How would that compare to making them read about someone else doing it or just looking at data in a table or a graph? Do not sell short the engagement and learning that occurs when you let students explore their world through authentic tasks. Add controversy, or a problem that needs to be solved, and you deepen their curiosity and motivation. Research shows that students will then delve into the topic, spending more time and exploring the details more closely, and that results in them understanding the concepts better and remembering the content for longer periods of time.
What do your students wonder about? What sparks their curiosity? How can you creatively tap into that and tie it in with the skills and strategies you wish to teach them that align to the Common Core State Learning Standards? Need help thinking outside the box? I welcome your calls or e-mails. I would be glad to help create with you!
Siobhan O’Hora, SESIS