HOS: Curious?

Matt Green
I never thought I’d miss the “why” questions.

You know, those conversations we used to have with our children when they were about four years old.  They’d go something like this:

“Dad, why can’t we go to the playground today?”
“Because we’d get all wet.”

“Why would we get all wet?”
“Because it’s raining.”

“Why is it raining?”
“Because sometimes the clouds get all filled up with water, they have to get rid of some.”

“Why do they get filled up with water.”
(At this point, you’re struggling and he senses it.)
“Well, when it is really hot and dry, clouds get thirsty and drink up the water on the ground.”

He pauses.  This quasi-scientific explanation has not cleared his bar, but he’s in a forgiving mood and returns to whatever it is he was doing.

Moments later.  “Dad, where do clouds come from?”

Back when I was a brash and perhaps self-serious subject-area guru before I had been appropriately humbled by years of why questions, and before I had discovered the power that mystery and surprise play in learning, I was lucky enough to teach under a Head of School who was as wise as he was joyful.  Each year, on opening day, he would quite purposefully come to our afternoon faculty meeting directly from a kindergarten class. “Well,” he’d say, “I just came from the kindergarten and were those kids curious. It’s an underappreciated secret,” he’d say to us high school teachers (wannabe college professors?), “that instinctively, all children want to learn.  Our job is to try not to screw that up! Have a great year.”

Most would not argue with my Head’s premise: that curiosity drives learning, and the research, in fact, backs him up.  In her article entitled, “Curiosity: The Force Within a Hungry Mind,” Marylin Price Mitchell writes:

Most teachers understand that curiosity supercharges learning. But they also know that many students can achieve high grades without being curious--by understanding the system of test-taking and dutifully doing their homework. Curious children often spend a great deal of time reading and acquiring knowledge because they sense a gap between what they know and what they want to know...In fact, when kids are in curiosity's grip, they often forget the immediate goals at hand because they are preoccupied with learning.

She goes on to offer ten tips for activating a student’s curiosity, among them: teach students how to ask quality questions, notice when kids feel puzzled and confused, encourage kids to tinker, use current events, teach students to be skeptics, and explore a variety of societies and cultures.  Her tenth tip is just for you: encourage curiosity at home.

You may have noticed that the annual MCAS report has once again been published.  I don’t pretend to know the extent to which curricular choices or instructional time is dictated or even informed by such annual standardized assessments and I am only slightly better informed as to their format and content.  But I do know that as an independent school, Falmouth Academy affords its teachers the luxury of choosing how we want to spend our teaching time, what we want to teach, how we want to teach it, and how we want to measure it, and that doing so means they are free to pursue productive tangents, delve more deeply into topics of importance, and develop skills like collaboration, research writing, problem-solving, and public speaking.

Take, for example, an encounter I observed last spring when I wandered into an eighth-grade science class.  (I have a habit of wandering in and out of classes; my teachers are so patient with me!) One of our extraordinary science teachers, Ms. Reves had brought her daughter’s old bicycle from home and mounted it in the center of a table in the back of her lab.  Within seconds of coming into class, one curious student had already asked, “Why is there a bike in the room?” Her response? “Figure it out.” Not a multiple-choice standardized test, but based on what I observed next, a test nonetheless!

Suddenly, students were circulating in pairs and trios with clipboards studying the bike.  A second curious student asked, “What do you mean, figure it out?” Ms. Reves explained that there are two characteristics we know about a multi-speed bike called "Mechanical Advantage" and "Speed Advantage," and not only did they have to figure out what those terms mean, but they also had to figure out how they would determine and display those mathematical values for every combination of gears! It was a multi-day exercise that merged what they have learned in physics with what they knew from real-life observations and develop skills in experimental design, problem-solving, negotiation, and teamwork. I am not sure even the best-designed test could fairly measure what I was lucky enough to wander into that day.

Curious about how a bike works?  Your kids certainly were.