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What principals can do to boost student and teacher curiosity

By March 18, 2021No Comments

Curiosity is so important to success in school and in life that you could write a book about it. (Indeed, several people have, including our CEO Bryan Goodwin, who wrote Building a Curious School.) Still, curiosity and its many benefits remain in pitifully short supply in many schools, especially in the older grades. The consequences of a curiosity-deficient school environment are as apparent as they are disheartening: Students lose motivation to engage in their learning and with the school community, their postsecondary plans lose focus, and as time goes on and they move into adulthood, research finds, they can experience poorer professional opportunities.

These are the very outcomes that all educators work so hard to avoid. One of the five components of McREL’s What Matters Most framework for school improvement is to “guarantee challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction” and I would argue that without curiosity, there is little hope of students viewing their work as challenging or engaging.

Most principals, when they learn about curiosity’s crucial role in learning, can quickly see how their teachers can learn to spark and sustain classroom curiosity through well-planned lessons and activities. But are there things principals themselves can do to promote a schoolwide culture of curiosity—among students and staff?

Here are some ideas from Building a Curious School:

  • Start your journey with moral purpose. In our experience at McREL, teachers universally love the idea of reconnecting with their own curiosity as a prelude to inspiring it in students, but curiosity isn’t the sort of thing a school leader can simply mandate. Rather, a guided conversation about why you all became educators can unleash an amazing amount of energy.
  • Embrace “mistake-ology.” An organizational culture that’s focused entirely on getting the right answer may be taking the wrong approach. Companies that encourage innovation—which inevitably means making mistakes along the way—do better than those that emphasize avoiding errors.
  • Encourage Curiosity Journals. We may all be born with curiosity, but like any other skill, it can fade with disuse or conversely, flower with the proper nurturing. With a curiosity journal, students can take note of things that capture their interest, no matter how seemingly small at first, that might be a candidate for further exploration. A principal can help by reminding teachers that there are specific types of questions they can deploy, that have been shown to pique curiosity. Two examples from Building a Curious School: the “self-improvement puzzle,” where you set a goal and ask yourself how to accomplish it, and any question designed to elicit how someone else is thinking or feeling.

If curiosity matters to student success, and principals matter to student success, then it stands to reason that curiosity ought to matter to principals—a lot. It can’t be solely the responsibility of individual teachers. Expeditionary Learning schools, for example, have adopted “compassionate curiosity” as a central feature of their curriculum. It’s time-consuming to prod students to grasp such an ethereal concept, so teachers often feel compelled to give up and move on to the next piece of content. This creates a perfect opportunity for a principal to be an instructional leader, by stepping in and reassuring teachers that they won’t be assessed solely on the breadth of the content they cover, but on the depth of their students’ intellectual and social-emotional progress.

Principals once dealt almost exclusively with the operational aspects of running a school, such as managing schedules, budgets, personnel, and safety. But in today’s schools, with any luck, they work for districts that encourage instructional leadership and a teamwork approach. Sure, someone has to be in charge of keeping the lights on. But someone also has to be in charge of ensuring that the intellectual and emotional spark of curiosity never goes out.

Tonia Gibson is a managing consultant at McREL International.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.