At an age when learning should be more engaging—high school students ought to be to exploring the deep mysteries of the universe, encountering great literature that reveals our shared humanity, and mastering the elegant language of mathematics that helps them solve complex problems—they’re bored out of their minds. Why should that be? Numerous studies point to the missing ingredient—something we observe in abundance in younger children, only to watch it slip away as they progress through school: curiosity. In this moment, teachers have the rare opportunity to engage students in some productive and semi-structured “unschooling.”
Ever since we articulated McREL’s six-phase model for student learning in our April 2018 white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, I’ve been having great fun talking about it with thousands of educators at conferences and workshops around the world, sharing instructional strategies and classroom practices that support each phase. (Learn more about the model in the spring 2018 issue of Changing Schools magazine and this October 2018 blog post.)
The purpose of the model is to remind us all that the goal of school isn’t teaching, it’s learning. This hasn’t been news to any of the educators I’ve interacted with. What is new is seeing the entire learning process—from disconnected data points to a robust plan for ongoing personal growth, mediated by known science on neurological and psychological processes—described in a unified model for student learning. Teachers often tell me they’ve been doing many of the strategies we endorse, yet have never before had an opportunity to think about why they work or how to sequence them in a cohesive manner (or how to tweak them to work even better for the precise mix of students in their class). In other words, they’ve long had a good toolkit and materials but often lacked the blueprints, and you need both to build a sound house.
A guest post by Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, co-author, with Bryan Goodwin, of the influential book, The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, and the forthcoming Instructional Models: How to Choose One and How to Use One.
I have had the greatest pleasure working in schools and school districts around the world as they worked tirelessly to help their students succeed. One of the most common aspects of my work was helping schools during their transition to a new instructional model—a tool that can lead to consistently excellent instruction by explaining why successful teaching practices work and how to emulate them. I often came in after the model was chosen and was there to lead training, observation, and implementation efforts. On occasion, I had the good fortune to work with schools as they were starting the process and got to be a part of the discussions, trials, and decision making that went into making these monumental shifts.
Curiosity is a compelling mental and emotional force that can propel students to ever-greater educational achievement. And of all the great ideas in Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, I’m really drawn to the Mystery tool [free tool download] because of its connection to curiosity.When we talk about trying to solve a mystery, we’re really talking about fashioning a hypothesis: Why do you think something happened, and can you prove it? While the word “hypothesis” is often associated with science, we can prompt students to phrase and answer such questions in all academic subjects—and, I would add, in all aspects of our lives. As discussed in Classroom Instruction That Works, hypothesizing pushes the brain into using one (or both) of two thought processes: deductive and inductive reasoning. And for our students, acquiring knowledge through active participation is often more engaging and effective than listening to a lecture.
We identified seven ways to use Interaction in an Instant in Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, and Interaction in an Instant may be the least formal. Sometimes a simple opportunity to chat (within guidelines you’ll provide) is enough to generate energy in the classroom and launch students into a learning-by-talking process with many different peers
The Gallup polling organization recently confirmed an observation that other researchers have made and that many of us have experienced firsthand: Older students are less “engaged” with school than younger ones. Students’ youthful zest for discovery dims a bit more with each school year, making the process of teaching and learning ever more challenging as students feel less connected to, and interested in, the topics they’re asked to learn. Waning engagement isn’t only a cause for concern among students, Gallup warned; parents and teachers need to feel engaged with a school too. If they don’t, it’s hard for the school to accomplish much.
This phenomenon was one of the motivations for my colleague Bryan Goodwin to write Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives (McREL, 2018). Describing the work of groundbreaking researchers like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Susan Engel, Bryan wondered what happens to students and schools that seems to be driving a wedge between them as time passes. And, crucially: Can it be fixed?
McREL 6-Phase Model of Learning | As deeply committed as we are to curiosity here at McREL, we recognize that in the absence of knowledge, curiosity wouldn’t do anybody much good. That’s why we’ve also been doing some digging into the nature of memory, hoping to guide teachers toward practices that maximize the acquisition and retention of knowledge.
As explored more deeply in our recent white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, the human brain works quite hard to help us filter out and forget extraneous information. This probably made good sense in the hunt-or-be-hunted days, but in the information age, forgetting is not a recipe for success.
Fortunately, once teachers know the stages of memory—and what happens between them—they can use some clever workarounds to help students strengthen recall. Essentially, we need to trick our brains into forgetting to forget.
SEL is one of those acronyms familiar mainly to educators. But once the idea behind social emotional learning is explained, only the staunchest readin’, ’ritin’, ’rithmetic types could possibly be against it. Simply put, should schools help students to develop the personal characteristics and interpersonal skills that are associated with success in school and life?
Even if the answer is a resounding “yes,” that still leaves the question: Can they?
McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin explores the research attempting to answer these questions in the October edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine. Frustratingly, he finds, SEL programs—and researchers’ attempts to evaluate them—have been too inconsistent to allow for sweeping do’s and don’ts on SEL objectives and design.
In 2011, the school region (what Americans call a district) of North Melbourne, Australia, launched an improvement initiative that stood out for being based on positivity, curiosity, and “inside-out” leadership rather than yet another series of top-down mandates. The North Melbourne experience soon became a source of inspiration for McREL, which has been advocating for more schools and districts to take a similarly upbeat approach to improvement and innovation.
I was the assistant principal of an elementary school in North Melbourne at the time, and, looking back, I feel like I participated in something historic. With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you our story about how it all began.
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.