If you’ve read my series on curiosity in schools, you’ll know that most classrooms have a serious problem: kids rarely demonstrate curiosity. This is our fault as educators, not theirs as kids. In my own classroom, I spent several years refining a weekly “Curiosity Time” in order to tackle this tricky problem. Here’s the (big) summary!
I always try to expose students to interesting ideas beyond the scope of our classroom. That’s the whole purpose of my weekly Puzzlement mailers. These simple tastes will stir up curiosity in students just as an amuse-bouche is designed to stir up an appetite. Many will latch onto the idea and explore it at home. Some will not. That’s fine.
However, this leaves the development of curiosity and creativity in the hands of the student at home. Is there a way to bring in 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. The first time through our weekly curiosity time (known as “Curiosituesday” one year), I’d give students all the same topic. This way we can practice the process together. One year, we all investigated chess. 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.
Scaffolding is key to any complex task – even being curious. And our highest-ability students need scaffolding in order to reach their instructional level, just as our most struggling students do.
Refine The Topic
Since chess is an enormous topic that people can devote their entire lives to, we’ll need to refine “chess” (note that this is a valuable skill in itself).
Wikipedia offers a great way to see refined, sub-categories about a topic. If you scroll down to the very bottom of the “Chess” page, you’ll see a table called “Chess” with links to more specific topics within chess.
And then even more specific topics, like:
These smaller, sub-topics are much more manageable. Even though we’re all using chess as our topic, students are free to pick a sub-topic of their choosing.
I actually built a tool called “The Wikipedia Wormhole” to try to help with this process. Here’s what I found when searching “Chess” using this tool.
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! Now students can actually go about finding information to their curious questions.
But what if students’ curiosity bends towards more experimental questions?
Developing Experimental Question
An experiment needs a hypothesis. Before developing their hypothesis, students will need a question to answer. Some will already have a burning question in their minds, but most will benefit from some structure and scaffolding. Consider using the tool SCAMPER (see Thinkertoys by Michael Michalko) to develop their question.
SCAMPER stands for :
- Put to other uses
Each verb alters an existing idea in a specific way. Perfect for creating questions that lead to an experiments.
Let’s assume our student picked “bridges” as a topic and then refined it (using Wikipedia as we saw above) to “truss bridges” or “span bridges.” Ask students to change one piece of a bridge using the verbs from SCAMPER (note that you’re setting up an independent variable). They might come up with:
- Substitute: What are the effects of substituting circles for the trusses?
- Adapt: What other disciplines could a truss be adapted to?
- Maximize: What is the maximum length I could build a span bridge?
- Eliminate: What are the effects of eliminating half of the trusses on a bridge?
If a student picked “plants” as a topic and then refined it to “photosynthesis,” they could use SCAMPER to create a question. Again, they should change one thing about photosynthesis:
- Substitute: What are the effects of substituting artificial light for sunlight?
- Eliminate: How long can a plant survive if we eliminate sunlight?
- Rearrange: What are the effects of exposing only one side of a plant to sunlight?
Developing A Hypothesis
Before jumping to develop a hypothesis, make sure students fully understand what a hypothesis even is.
- Definition: A hypothesis is an educated guess that answers the experimenter’s question.
- Essential Characteristics:
- Can be proven true or false with a test.
- Must have one specific detail that we change (independent variable) and one detail that is measured (dependent variable).
- Shouldn’t be obvious (no duh statements)
- Often takes the form of: If, then…
- Often includes words such as: increase, decrease, faster, slower
- If I remove half the trusses of a bridge, the bridge will only support half the weight.
- If I decrease a plant’s sunlight by half, the plant will stop growing.
- If I substitute artificial life for sunlight, the plant’s growth rate will decrease by half.
- If I take away trusses, the bridge won’t be as strong (not specific, obvious statement).
- More sunlight means the plant will be better (not testable).
Time To Experiment
By this point, we’ve armed students with a testable, scientific question. They’re ready to experiment. Naturally, you’ll need to model and scaffold this experience to make it worthwhile. Remind students that they picked one detail to change (amount of sunlight, number of trusses, etc) and one detail to measure (maximum weight, growth rate, etc). They’ll need to set up three tests to start with, changing the independent variable in three different ways. They’ll measure the dependent variable and (eventually) search for a pattern.
Note: Since this is Curiosity Fridays, these experiments should be fueled by curiosity, not procedures and paperwork. Make sure that “the rules of the scientific method” don’t dominate the experience of organic inquiry. This isn’t to say that the scientific method shouldn’t be explicitly taught, but try waiting until after a successful round of experiments. This way, students can inductively learn this scientific principle, comparing it to their own experience.
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. 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 exciting and interesting for your kids.
- 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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