If you’ve read my series on curiosity in schools, you’ll know that my classroom had a serious problem: students rarely demonstrated curiosity. This was my fault as an educator, not there’s as students (I mean, the same kids went home and were highly curious).
I spent several years refining a weekly “Curiosity Time” in order to tackle this tricky problem. Here’s the (big) summary!
Note: it’s key to focus on curiosity and interest, not “passions.” I wrote more on why I learned to settle down with the word “passion”.
In observations, I noticed that great teachers constantly expose students to interesting ideas beyond the scope of their curriculum. They sneak in art or clips from classic films or ideas from their own college courses.
That’s why I started my weekly Puzzlement mailers. It’s a way to quickly stir up curiosity in students, just as an amuse-bouche is designed to stir up one’s appetite. Some students will latch onto an idea and explore it on their own. Some will not. That’s fine.
But, is there a way to establish more explicit instruction to guide students in pursuing curiosity?
Scaffold and Model
As always, we must scaffold and model anything that we teach. Curiosity is no different. When I reflect on my lessons-gone-wrong, the mistake is almost always that I skipped modeling, built insufficient scaffolds, and rushed to get students working on their own. The results were often, uh, mixed. But it’s no surprise, right? I didn’t actually teach them the project!
Modeling is a required step in any model of instruction. That means, if my class is doing a research project, I must first do each step of your own research project in front of them. Skipping the modeling step is like cooking your chicken to only 130º so that you can “save time.” It’s pennywise and pound-foolish.
So, the first time we’d go through our weekly curiosity time, I’d give all students the same topic. This way we can practice the process together. This is a scaffold. One year, we all investigated chess during the first round. Then, in the next round, they’d pick from a set of choices I gave them before eventually graduate into a truly independent study later in the year.
Simplifying the “pick a topic” stage at first is a scaffold. It allows students to spend their brain’s energy (and our time) on other parts of the project. Later, we remove scaffolds.
Refine The Topic
Now, since chess is an enormous topic that some people devote their entire lives to, we’ll need to refine the topic of “chess.”
Wikipedia offers a great way to see refined, sub-categories within a larger topic. If you scroll down to the very bottom of the “Chess” page, you’ll see a table labeled “Chess” with links to more specific topics within chess.
And then even more specific topics, like:
These smaller, sub-topics are much more manageable. So, even though we’re all using chess as our topic, students can pick a sub-topic. And note that I’ve given them the sub-topics to choose from. We’re not going to spin our wheels thinking of topics. I want them to spend their brain energy on learning how to research, not picking their topic.
Next, students develop questions to guide their exploration. They’ll create sophisticated questions by combining a question word (who, what, where, when, why, how) with one of the icons of depth and complexity or content imperatives to form specific questions.
Also consider bringing in these key words (a subset of words developed by Sandra Kaplan): significance, function, types, conditions, consequences, purpose, traits, reaction, evidence, and influence.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages (ethics) of the Ruy Lopez opening?
- What is the effect (contribution) of using the Ruy Lopez opening on the middle game?
- How have points of view about the Sicilian Defense changed over time?
- What are the consequences of using the King’s Gambit?
- What patterns of traits are there in chess openings for black?
The Differentiator will help create interesting objectives.
Above all, these questions should be intriguing to students. They should want to find out more. Curiosity must be fueled by interest or it simply isn’t curiosity!
It’s fascinating to ask kids, “Are you actually interested in that question?” And see them slowly shake their heads, “no.” Well, let’s develop questions that are actually interesting then! My 12 year olds would seem surprised by the idea of pursuing somethi
Now students can actually go about finding information to their curious questions. (Now, this is all about information-based research. What if students’ curiosity bends towards more experimental questions? I wrote more about that here.)
I always wrapped up with a week of presentations. Over at Byrdseed.TV, I have a series of videos to help students develop actually fun-to-watch presentations. In short:
- Use a Pecha Kucha or Ignite model (modified as you see fit)
- Design slides on paper first, never a computer.
- Practice only one specific aspect of presenting (body language, inflection, eye-contact, etc)
- Practice outloud at least five times. At least.
Final Tips To Running A Curiosity Project
- Be a guide You’re facilitating a classroom full of curious kids engaged in self-directed research. This may be your most challenging assignment yet! :) During this time, remember to remain a vigilant guide. Sometimes you need to step in, other times you don’t. Help students stay on track, but don’t nag. Constantly conference with students, but allow them to explore their topics at a natural pace. Above all, keep this time authentically interesting for your kids! It’s quite a balancing act.
- Provide appropriate and varied resources Some classroom computers and a printer makes this less of a challenge. Ask students to visit the public library. Since this is difficult for some families, I tell students I’m making a trip to the largest library in the area. Anyone who needs a resource gives me the title and I pick it up for them. Remember that video, audio, interviews, and periodicals are all possibilities!
- Keep track of student progress It’s fine if students move at different rates. Anyone who “finishes” with a topic can present and move on to a new puzzlement. However, it’s probably wise to have a progress chart to monitor the class and be aware of stragglers and rushers. These types of students may need you to help by:
- Narrow the scope of overwhelming topics Students who have stalled out may be overwhelmed by a topic. Help these students to refine their topic to something more manageable. “Who was the best baseball player” could become “Who was the best baseball player from the 1950s.”
- Increase the complexity of topics On the other hand, you may need to increase the complexity of a topic that is being skimmed. The tools of depth and complexity provide an easy way to differentiate in this way.
- Modify topics that have lost student interest If students are losing steam due to lack of interest, either end their topic by pushing them towards a presentation or alter their topic using SCAMPER. A student who feels he has mastered “solar power” may become interested again when solar power is combined with space travel or underwater vehicles.
- Encourage student creativity in developing a product When a topic has reached a natural end, encourage students to present their new knowledge in the most authentic way possible. A student who has researched the evolution of video games shouldn’t read a written report. They should create a multimedia presentation or bring in examples of the evolution. Don’t let the presentation of information become a bland book report. Maintain excitement, interest, and an “I can’t believe I get to do this at school” mentality.
- Provide feedback on completed presentations A simple rubric completed by both student and teacher can serve as feedback on the student’s work. Require students to give a “practice presentation” to you in the beginning to catch incomplete or unsatisfactory products. Since this is a time for students to investigate their own interests, removal from the process can serve as motivation for uncooperative students or those putting in low effort. The more you are able to keep this time fueled by authentic curiosity, the less this will be a problem.
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