Category Archives: Blog

Curiosity can’t go it alone

As we visit schools and speak with educators all over the world, my colleagues and I are always on the lookout for attitudes toward curiosity. Is it encouraged or quashed? Is it treated as a necessity, an impractical luxury, or—conversely, as a nuisance or a distraction?

While doing research for McREL’s newest book, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives, I was struck by the fact that we’re all born with curiosity, but some of us, in effect, lose access to it. Over time, this loss often pervades many aspects of our lives, not just schooling; without guidance, such as from a talented teacher or inspiring leader, natural curiosity can wither to the point of near uselessness.

“Childhood curiosity is a collaboration between child and adult,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (2015). It’s the availability and effectiveness of that collaboration, perhaps more than any other resource gap, that may separate the haves and have-nots of the future.

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Further reading: Let curiosity be your guide

book discussionIf you’ve been getting more curious about curiosity’s role in teaching and learning, you might be ready to dive into more books, articles, and resources. A great place to start is McREL’s upcoming new book, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives, by our CEO, Bryan Goodwin (available next week in our bookstore!). Bryan reviews the academic research and describes how generating more individual and societal curiosity could improve our schools, workplaces, relationships, civic discourse, and, really, our entire lives.

The rest of the books on this list approach curiosity from slightly different perspectives but any would serve as a great introduction.

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It
by Ian Leslie (Basic Books, 2015)

An excellent introduction to the various types of curiosity and how they come together (or fail to) in modern life. While schools and employers nearly universally say they aim to cultivate curiosity, Leslie points out, they simultaneously discourage it because it can smack of insubordination. A great quote: “Highly curious people, who have carefully cultivated their long-term memories, live in a kind of augmented reality; everything they see is overlaid with additional layers of meaning and possibility, unavailable to ordinary observers.”

Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life
by Todd Kashdan (Harper Perennial, 2010)

Kashdan, a behavioral psychologist, makes the case that curiosity is the key to happiness and overall success. Kashdan describes the emotional reward mechanism that curiosity activates and contrasts curiosity with neurologically related phenomena like stress and worry. A great quote: “The greatest advantage of curiosity is that by spending time and energy with the new, increased neurological connections are made possible. Facts and experiences are synthesized into a web, paving the way for greater intelligence and wisdom. We become more efficient when making future decisions. We become better at visualizing the relativity of seemingly disparate ideas, paving the way for greater creativity. It is the neurological equivalent of personal growth. New pathways in the brain are inevitable when you seek out new information and experiences and integrate them into the previously known.”

Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything
by Philip Ball (University of Chicago Press, 2013)

The word “curious” and its cognates exploded into print in the 17th century. The Scientific Revolution was in full swing, and a human characteristic long derided as wasteful or even sinful was having its moment. This book is a work of history, not psychology, but a useful reminder that the universe of possible ideas changes over time, as societal attitudes toward the very act of thinking change. A great quote: “Much of what passed for learning in the Middle Ages amounted to rearranging old knowledge (much of it spurious) rather than adding to it anew. New ideas were often greeted with skepticism, for why should anyone trust them when they had not been through the rigorous filter of the ages? Originality of thought was a sign of unhealthy pride, and the pedantic, twisting paths of logic evident in some medieval works can hardly be mistaken for curiosity.”

WHY: What Makes Us Curious
by Mario Livio (Simon & Schuster, 2017)

Livio, an astrophysicist, covers much of the same ground as Ball—for example, the ways people often misinterpret Leonardo’s accomplishments and shortcomings through our own perceptions—and comes to the same conclusion, that human life changed profoundly when curiosity was allowed to flourish. Great quote (with emphasis in the original): “Curiosity is the best remedy for fear. One of the clearest manifestations of freedom is precisely the ability to become interested in anything you like.

Wild Curiosity: How to Unleash Creativity and Encourage Lifelong Wondering
by Erik Shonstrom (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

A K–12 educator turned college professor, Shonstrom ponders why nobody took much of an interest in his curiosity levels as a kid, and vows not to make the same mistake as a teacher. He discusses curiosity’s role in literature and culture (Odysseus having himself tied down so he can hear the Sirens without becoming entrapped by them—that’s curiosity!), and as the title promises, he explains the connections and differences between curiosity and creativity. He agrees with Kashdan that curiosity could be called “essential to living a fulfilling life” and thinks schools must shed the prevailing industrial model and embrace one that incorporates more curiosity. A great quote: “If what we’re talking about is learning, then engaging with curiosity is the best trick there is. Recent studies indicate that there are neurological underpinnings to curiosity that provide some tantalizing answers to not just how curiosity works, but how being curious may in fact be ‘learning to learn.’”

The Hungry Mind 
by Susan Engel (Harvard University Press, 2015)

Engel, a social psychologist, draws on her experiences as a onetime elementary school teacher and also provides anecdotes from her own childhood in still-rural Long Island to ponder the nature of childhood curiosity and what happens to it when we get to school. It’s hardly a spoiler alert to share that, through experimentation, she found it diminishes as children advance through the grade levels. A great quote: “Though most people say that curiosity is a good thing, when it comes to choosing between curiosity and compliance, the educational system pitches toward compliance.”

For principals and teachers on school leadership teams, I recommend another McREL book, Curiosity Works: A Guidebook for Moving Your School from Improvement to Innovation, by my colleagues Bryan Goodwin, Kristin Rouleau, and Dale Lewis. They blend learning research, lessons learned from their own work with schools, and team-building tools into a process that will help your team tackle the difficult work of school reform with camaraderie and joy.

Hubler_Eric_lgEric Hübler is a writer and editor at McREL International. He is a former Denver Post education reporter and marketing communications manager for Denver-area nonprofits.

How can teachers tap into the power of curiosity right now?

Intrigued by what we’ve been saying about curiosity and want to build it into your teaching practice right away? Here are some classroom-ready ideas, drawn from our Unleashing Curiosity quick reference guides.

Idea 1: Be choosy about choice. Offering your students choices is an excellent technique for building their curiosity, interest, and engagement, but offering too many choices can sap students’ motivation as they expend mental energy agonizing over options, worried they’ll make the wrong choice. Usually, 3–5 choices suffice, and they’re more effective if you tailor the options to an individual student’s needs and interests. (Source: Unleashing Curiosity with Challenging Learning Tasks)

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Curious minds are inquiring: How does curiosity add to McREL’s body of work?

Have you noticed the word “curiosity” appearing in the titles of more and more McREL publications, resources, and services? We have a good reason for that. We’ve been excited to share our Curiosity Works™ approach to school improvement and innovation with teachers and school leaders, many of whom are already familiar with our other bodies of research-based knowledge, such as Classroom Instruction That Works® and Balanced Leadership®. Some of these educators have asked if Curiosity Works supplants these resources. It doesn’t. To the contrary, Curiosity Works brings a new degree of focus, and perhaps some new vocabulary, to McREL’s existing resources that are still as relevant and effective as ever.

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Why not creativity?

As we talk with more and more educators about the importance and power of curiosity in teaching and learning, a question we often hear is: How does curiosity differ from creativity? Creativity is on many teachers’ minds as they prepare their students for real-world experiences. It consistently shows up as a desirable attribute many employers seek in the modern workforce. Check out any airport bookstore and you’re almost sure to find books and magazine articles upholding creativity as an ideal way to transform everyday interactions into sources of both joy and profit.

McREL’s focus on curiosity doesn’t preclude creativity—far from it! It’s just that we agree with Erik Shonstrom, in Wild Curiosity: How to Unleash Creativity and Encourage Lifelong Wondering, when he says that “to be creative one must first be curious. Being in an environment that fosters curiosity is vital to the creative process.” In other words, curiosity is the precursor to creativity.

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A brief introduction to curiosity

What makes you, or your students, curious about a particular topic?

And have you ever been curious about curiosity itself? What is it, exactly? What triggers it? How can we best use curiosity in teaching and learning? Can it be encouraged (or discouraged), harnessed, and strengthened (or weakened)?

These questions, and more, have captured our interest here at McREL, and have driven us to review research studies and academic publications, and talk with educators in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere about the use of curiosity in instructional planning and delivery, and its effects on students and adult learners. We’ve been so intrigued by what we’ve learned that, in addition to incorporating our findings into our peer-to-peer coaching work with educators, we’ve written several books recently about the power of curiosity, including Curiosity Works, Unstuck, and, due out in September, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives.

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We need a stronger teacher pipeline. It’ll take better selection, preparation, pay, and respect

Recent teacher strikes and demonstrations across the U.S. have made it clear that many teachers believe they are undervalued, both financially and in terms of societal respect. And surveys show that many teachers are also feeling frustrated and stressed from too many mandates and too little support.

As a perhaps not-too-surprising result, it was clear even before the recent protests that recruitment and retention of teachers was spiraling downward for lots of reasons. Attrition is happening at every stage of the career path: Too few people are entering the profession, particularly in high-need areas such as math, science, and special education. And of those who do sign up, too many leave, too quickly—unable to resist the allure of doing, well, just about anything else

And what about quality? Even if we could snap our fingers and make teacher shortages a thing of the past, would the new teachers we recruited (and/or the existing teachers we persuaded to stay around) be the best available? Or just the best we decided we could afford?

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Just write it!

The theme for the April edition of Educational Leadership magazine—“Learning to Write, Writing to Learn”—got McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin thinking about how writing has changed since his school days. Noting that many business leaders have taken a back-to-the-future approach to note-taking, Bryan decided to ditch his digital assistant and put pen to paper once again

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Middle school math teachers learn formative assessment skills to overcome students’ anxiety

Even in the most supportive of middle schools, students’ performance in math and science can decline sharply. With a larger peer group to judge themselves against, many students who exuded confidence in elementary school no longer feel they can measure up, and stop trying—harming not only the students but society at large. Fortunately, new research from McREL and IMPAQ International shows that math teachers can help by significantly boosting their use of formative assessment, without sacrificing other responsibilities.

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School culture: Secret sauce or missing ingredient?

Frustratingly for practitioners, research often tell us what a phenomenon is, but not why it came to be that way. And that can strand us without an answer to the most important question: How should we manipulate inputs to achieve the outputs we desire?

So it is with school culture. In his column for the March edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin recounts how a conversation with a principal caused him to reexamine his long-held stance that school culture is the “secret sauce” of high-performing schools. The problem for that principal, Bryan writes, was the difficulty of teasing apart correlation from causation. Does a strong, healthy school culture cause high performance? Or might it be the other way around?

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