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The Curiosity Coma
Written by Barbara Logan
When I look into the ever-questioning eyes of my 4 year-old niece, I am astounded by how much she wants to know, and how frequently she inquires about the world around her. Determined to improve my capacity for engagement and patience, she is a steady flow of questions—But Auntie Barbara why does it have to rain? I find this to be both amazing and perplexing. It’s amazing because her curiosity knows no bounds —she is a never ending supply of ‘but whys.’ It is perplexing because this curiosity stands in conflict with a common lament of exasperated educators: Students just don’t care, and they aren’t motivated to learn. How do children go from wanting to know everything under the sun to having so few questions? It is very simple – they learn it.
Years ago at a conference a presenter described a trip to a grocery store where a child spies an eggplant, stops and inquires about what it is. The presenter demonstrated three possible parental responses: “Shut up and let’s go”; “It’s an eggplant”; and “It’s an eggplant, a kind of fruit. Let’s buy one and take it home to explore it.” Thinking about this I created a teacher parallel: “Shut up, that’s not on the pacing guide”; “It’s an eggplant”; and “It’s an eggplant, a kind of fruit. Let’s buy one and bring it to class to explore it.”
Responses one and two, in both scenarios, have inquiry reducing tendencies. Response number one sends a message that questions are a source of annoyance and not worthy of answers. While response number two provides an answer, the lack of discourse is still problematic; it shuts down any further inquiry by essentially closing the book on the child's question. Through these kinds of responses we systematically, if unintentionally, teach children that their questions are irrelevant and bothersome. In time, their curiosity is diminished, so they stop asking. This process occurs in and out of school, but is painfully obvious in the classroom.
I once gave my students a science inquiry sheet that asked them to complete the phrase “I wonder.” One of my angels wrote “I wonder why you keep giving me these?” In looking over the other responses, I found they were painfully similar. The idea was to spark their scientific thinking; however my 5th grade students did not seem to have any questions. During a class discussion about the assignment, they indicated that they were in fact uncomfortable coming up with questions, and were only used to answering the questions presented to them via textbooks and teachers. We had inadvertently stopped them from believing that their questions had merit.
The good news? Most students' curiosity has not been killed; it has simply diverted into a coma. Their questions are trapped inside and awaiting a focused adult to release them. Effective educators help students release their questions, teaching them that learning is about asking good questions and discovering the answers. They lead them to ask effective questions that support their development. Ultimately, they teach them mechanisms to find their own answers.
My niece is on the brink of brilliance because, like every great inventor, theorist, educator, etc., she has questions and is relentless in seeking the answers. As much as I adore her, I know that she is not an ingénue or a prodigy. The wattage of her brimming brilliance reflects the same potential that is present in every child. If we nurture their curiosity, we can prepare them to fully engage in solving the problems that the 21st century presents.
"Classroom Habitudes Lesson: Curiosity – The Right Question"
Angela Maiers shares a lesson from her book, Classroom Habitudes, in this blog post. She writes, "Students have become skilled at answering our questions rather confident and comfortable asking their own," and offers an exercise teachers can use to develop their students' questioning skills.
"Teaching Students to Ask the Right Questions"
Pat Hensley responds to Angela Maiers' Classroom Habitudes, and offers her experience building students' confidence and effectiveness at asking questions.
"Teaching Students to Ask the Best Questions"
Sharon Longert writes that students who learn to ask the best possible questions are likely to produce the best possible answers, and offers an exercise to foster good questioning.
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