How curious are your students?

Image courtesy of Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In her recent article The Case for Curiosity (Educational Leadership, February 2013), Susan Engel asserts that “curiosity is essential to learning, but in scarce supply in most schools.” One of the major points of the article is that students should be encouraged to ask as many questions as possible. While this might first appear to be a rather pedestrian outcome, we should reflect on whether our instructional choices foster curiosity within our students. Engel wants us to make questioning a goal:

Think of question asking as the goal of an educational activity, rather than a happy by-product. Develop activities that invite or require students to figure out what they want to know and then seek answers.

Unfortunately, sometimes questions are seen as, at-best, an accidental outcome; at worst, they are a disruption to the teacher’s flow. Like most things, curiosity within our students will only be nurtured and developed through purposeful thought & action. What would the outcome be if we examined each lesson through the lens of curiosity? That is, what if we asked ourselves how curious will my students become as a result of this lesson? 

There is no question that this is easier said then done. Undoubtedly the pressures to cover content, meet outcomes and standards, and prepare students for year-end exams leaves many of us wondering about where we might find the time. That said, why do we always try to leave time for questions or squeeze a few questions in at the end. Why don’t we start with questions?

Why don’t we ask our students what they’re curious about? Would it change anything for you if your students told you what they wondered about the solar system, the industrial revolution, statistics, or poetry? Would your students develop a deeper level of engagement if you paused for one moment, right in the middle of a lesson, and asked the students what they’re thinking. When we pause and ask, are there any questions, we’re usually are met with silence; follow that with now, what are you thinking and you’re likely to be surprised at how much is on their minds.

Your move to emphasizing curiosity doesn’t have to be epic. Just begin by keeping curiosity at the forefront of your mind as you develop your usual lesson sequences. Eventually, it will become a natural routine; then a habit.

Fostering curiosity will take some time; time for you to shift your focus and time for the students to develop new, habitual ways of reflection. However, by shifting our instructional mindset to one that makes nurturing curiosity a priority, the same content you’ve taught for years can be transformed into the means that drives an unprecedented level of motivation and engagement.

Are You Really Open?

Thinking aloud here…

Throughout my career I’ve heard many professionals define themselves as lifelong learners and make reference to the fact that they don’t have all of the answers. Now, I don’t doubt the sincerity of these remarks, however, I wonder sometimes how many of us are actually open to being wrong…I mean really wrong…so wrong that you’re willing to change your mind about something you’ve made definitive remarks about perviously.

Now I get that your definitive positions are research-based, however, those that hold the opposite view likely have research to support their position as well. Okay, now what? Does research actually drive our positions/opinions or do our positions/opinions lead us to giving greater credence to the research that supports our perspective? In other words, if a series of studies points to a particular practice (one which we philosophically disagree with) as being the most favorable course of action, are we truly open & willing to be swayed or will we begin to dismiss the validity of the results or question the character/hidden agenda of the researchers themselves?

It’s one thing to say, “I don’t have all of the answers” but it’s quite another to say, “I was wrong.” No one wants to be wrong, but it would seem that the more definitive we are about a position the less likely we are to admit that maybe we got it wrong, even partially wrong. When was the last time you changed your mind about an issue? I know in this era of instant-response-140-character-definitive-provocative-followers-retweets culture it is hard to admit we were wrong as it might threaten our credibility if we’ve made a definitive statement in the past only to change our minds at a later date. In politics it’s labelled a flip-flop, which is a term I’ve come to loathe. Changing our minds as a result of new information should be seen as being mature and thoughtful, rather than being wishy-washy.

If you have ever thought/said, “I’m not always right about everything” then reflect on when exactly you were wrong and changed your mind? If we say we’re not always right – but act as if we are – then others will quickly recognize our false humility and insincerity.

Being truly open means setting aside our biases and considering new information, research, or practices with a fresh perspective………………..or not………………..after-all, I could be wrong.

…just thinking aloud.

The Inquiry Process: Conversations & Protocols

Last night I had the pleasure of participating in our school district’s second Inquiry Workshop of the year entitled Conversations and Protocols.  The first session this year focused on developing a good inquiry question.  Last night’s session focused on how to organize and conduct productive conversations with inquiry teams.  It was an amazing session!

Last year, our school district moved to an inquiry-based model for school improvement.  That meant that rather than focus on one (or more) of our district goals as a whole, schools were asked to develop inquiry questions that focused on specific aspects within the goals that were most needed in their schools.  Our 3 District Goals – Literacy, Numeracy, and School Completion – remained, and we did ask schools to develop a question(s) that fit within one of the three goal areas, however, schools were now able to focus their attention on what really mattered. 

This benefitted our small schools and our large schools for different reasons.  Small schools were now able to concentrate their efforts rather than having everyone doing everything for three goal areas; our large schools were able to develop a connectedness around a common question that typically focused on the School Completion Goal.  This is starting to connect individual departments to a common question and focus, which for High Schools is a huge step forward.  To make a long story short, our schools spent all of last year developing their questions, shifting the paradigm around school improvement, and developing new routines for dialogue.  Samples of our school-based improvement plans can be found at our website: http://www.sd67.bc.ca/content.asp?o_id=1332. Now before you get too excited, remember, we are only in year 2 and our questions still need some fine tuning, however, we think we are off to a great start.  All of our schools are at various points along their own continuum – that’s okay.  We encourage schools to look inward – to highlight how much they have grown and how much they have learned.

Anyway, this year we are focused on developing leaders who can facilitate inquiry sessions for learning teams and/or schools.  We had a group of 30 teachers/administrators attend the session. 

As you likely know, protocols are ways of organizing and structuring your professional learning conversations.  So often our professional discussions start to go sideways and we begin to talk about irrelevant things.  We’ve had a good time, ate some good food, left happy, but accomplished very little.  Protocols keep groups focused on the purpose of the meeting and begin to build a true culture of collaboration.

Protocols help educators achieve trust and create a culture that is essential for collaborative work on issues of substance. You can’t wait until the culture is “perfect” to engage in protocols; it is through their use that the culture will develop and trust will emerge. The structure and norms, such as warm and cool feedback, of the protocols, combined with actions that are in accordance with the assumptions that undergird protocols, lead to a collaborative culture willing to engage in substantive dialogue. (Lois Brown Easton)

Protocols are very beneficial when you have a group that doesn’t know each other very well OR when you are dealing with a controversial issue.  The facilitator’s role is really to keep the conversations going, ask the right questions, and keep people on task.  A facilitator is not there to give answers or advice.  The inquiry process is about discovery; there wouldn’t be any discovery if the facilitator gave all the right answers.

Anyway, I will likely add more about our inquiry-based school improvement process in future blogs.  I really just wanted you to know that we had a great session last night.  It just confirmed for me that I work in a great school district and with some amazing educators!