The hallmark of curiosity is the desire to know more (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). What could be a better cornerstone for any educator? Facilitating learners from early childhood through middle school, preservice teachers, graduate students and practicing teachers, I have found that when I activate my students' curiosity, they far exceed my requirements and expectations. In this educational philosophy statement, I will discuss the ways in which I strive to create a pedagogy of curiosity, along with my view of the role of the teacher and my image of the learner.
Creating a Pedagogy of Curiosity
I have not found a simple formula or algorithm to create a pedagogy of curiosity but my dissertation study has offered great insights. Ultimately, I believe it is the interplay of several factors that combine to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Specifically, I typically strive for some combination of the following four factors: 1) provide rich experiences with authentic work; 2) allow for play, particularly digital play; 3) embrace a shift in classroom power dynamics; and 4) be purposeful about providing scaffolds.
Provide Rich Experiences with Authentic Work
Aligning myself with social constructivists, I believe that knowledge is socially negotiated and agreed upon by members of a community (e.g., see Vygotsky, 1978; Lave & Wenger, 1991). It is therefore important that learning be situated in a meaningful context and be experiential. Interestingly, people's epistemological beliefs about themselves as learners are formed early in life. Their beliefs typically fall on a continuum somewhere between entity theories and incremental theories. People who are entity theorists view learning and intelligence as fixed or finite. As such, they seem to be in competition with other students in order to appear to have the abundance of knowledge. People who are incremental theorists view learning and intelligence as flexible or malleable. These students are not hampered by competition and thus seek out intellectual challenges for themselves (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000). These beliefs about learning affect students' willingness to persist through frustration, their disposition to inquiry and their motivation to learn. In fact, Bruner (1966) believes that children should be as aware of their “strategies of thought” as they are of their efforts to memorize facts. Obviously, if beliefs are never raised to consciousness and challenged, these ideas persist (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). Thus, the beliefs about learning and related consequences that children create early can remain through adulthood. However, Tolhurst (2007) has uncovered that students' epistemological beliefs can be positively changed through active, experiential learning.
Schank, Berman and Macpherson (1999) claim that “the most memorable way to learn is through experience.” Additionally, Jonassen (1999) states that “knowledge cannot be transmitted” and thus constructivist “instruction should consist of experiences that facilitate knowledge construction.” I believe that a strong use for technology is to offer rich experiences for students. Through the use of simulation software, programming software, collaborative tools and much more, students can gain a window into the domain of knowledge and begin to formulate questions and experiment with hypotheses. Then, when students have attempted to address issues or answer questions on their own first, they are much more inclined to be interested in the facts, details and structure of the discipline (Bruner, 1966; Papert, 1993a, 1993b) that we as educators know are important. Further, this image of using technology to provide rich experiences for students that is then followed by a teacher's expertise in the domain is a much more palatable to me than the image of a program directing a student through a predetermined path of coursework. Thus, I believe in offering students experiences first and then following those experiences with the necessary structure and details. However, these experiences should not just be novel, they should be heavily steeped in the authenticity of the “real world.”
Schlechty (2002) and Armstrong (1998) are two among many other educators who have emphasized the importance of authentic activities for students. Additionally, Papert (1993a; 1993b) discusses experiences for students at length, stating that building intuition is more important for students than learning facts. Technology-rich learning is an especially powerful way to offer experience to students, particularly in areas such as math and science where some intuitions elude students even after they learn the content knowledge. For example, one young student noted that a particular simulation software let him feel “what it would be like to be a scientist and see the planets up close.” These authentic environments naturally motivate students (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000).
As students progress through school, it becomes easier to keep their learning relevant and authentic. Particularly in graduate school, where students have chosen a field of personal interest and have specialized their learning, the knowledge that is important for students is more closely matched to the knowledge that is important to students. Additionally, many graduate school assignments ask students to connect their knowledge to the world in some meaningful way. Meier (2002) contends that school at all levels should be a combination of a good kindergarten class and a good graduate school class. The kindergarten class ingredient keeps learning active and experiential and the graduate school ingredient keeps learning relevant and authentic.
Allow for Play; Particularly Digital Play
Most people will agree that imaginative play is important for very young children. Then, when children reach school age, most want play replaced with rigor. Yet, when speaking with experts in a field, they are much more likely to talk about playing with an idea or getting to know an idea rather than testing themselves rigorously over a topic (Papert, 1993a, 1993b). Further, when Vygotsky (1978) studied children at play, he described its importance by saying that children are “a head taller” at play. He found that play stretched a child's development beyond the child's actual developmental age and considered play to be the more capable peer in the zone of proximal development. Finally, Winnicott (2005), considered the father of modern play therapy, described a “potential space” in play when children perceive themselves as more capable then they actually are, as all-powerful and impressive. In play, emotions are heightened, interests are piqued, and dreams are born. It is a perfect time to interject learning!
Papert (2002) understands that children at play do not shy away from challenges. In fact, he coined the term “hard fun” to describe when children consider playing fun because it is hard and challenging. In other words, children do not want fun or play that is trite as it belittles their intellect and their sense of adventure. Thus, play does not have to equate to whimsy, but can be serious, challenging and motivating. Indeed, I believe that learners of all ages can benefit from playing with the ideas of a particular domain. When properly framed by an experienced teacher, I believe play has a place in all classrooms. I have successfully used play in many situations, from teaching elementary school students about coordinate points to teaching preservice teachers to design technology rich learning environments.
Not all play is created equally though. Digital play, or play that uses technology, offers powerful learning advantages to play with physical objects. For example, base 10 blocks are a common manipulative used by mathematics teachers. These blocks have some material intelligence (Gee, 2003) built in to their structure as a student can line up ten of the ones cubes which match the length of the tens rod. However, when these base 10 blocks are used, many students like to play with them by building towers with the blocks. This building activity offers students spatial feedback, but no particular feedback about place value, which is the reason the blocks are in use. In contrast, students' play on the base blocks virtual manipulative offers mathematical feedback directly related to place value. For example, when students add more than 10 ones blocks, the number disappears indicating that the value that the student has modeled cannot be directly represented in Arabic numerals using base 10. This mathematical feedback offers considerably more visibility into the powerful mathematical concepts that students can then access to problem solve in other applications. This is only one of many learning reasons that for the learning environment, digital play has advantages over play without technology.
Embrace a Shift in Classroom Power Dynamics
As you have likely imagined by now, this pedagogy of curiosity creates a very different type of classroom; one which requires a very different type of teacher leadership and power dynamics. Leadership, power structures and change management have been studied in organizations for many years (Yukl, 2006), offering significant insights for educators. Recently, this research has been translated into the educational setting specifically (Schlechty, 2002). For example, Schlechty (2002) believes students should be viewed as volunteers in the classroom even when their attendance is compulsory. By doing so, teachers recognize that even when students are present, they must choose to engage and learn. Interestingly, when students' status is elevated to a volunteer, others' roles must also be reevaluated. Teachers become instructional leaders and curriculum designers, principals become leaders of instructional leaders (Schlechty, 2002).
Schlechty's (2002) view of students as volunteers not only reevaluates roles in the classroom, it also shifts the power structure of the classroom and the relationship of the teacher and student. Yukl (2006) defines power as “the capacity of one party to influence another party.” For years under the instructor centered learning approach, teachers have rightly used position power, which Yukl (2006) defines as “influence derived from legitimate authority,” to maintain order and facilitate learning in their classrooms. Under this paradigm, teachers exercise legitimate power, which is that granted to them from a recognized authority; coercive power, which is authority to inflict punishment; and more recently reward power, which is control over resources or desired rewards (Yukl, 2006) with students in the classroom. However, Bennis (2003) contends that today's leaders must understand that power now follows ideas rather than position and I believe that this is true for young people also. Ubiquitous technology in our culture has given even young children an unprecedented taste of power with videos, music and television shows on demand from the computer, video games that offer real and important choices, and the power to digitally and creatively remix work. This technological power may create a significant disconnect between children's school worlds and their home worlds. So within this new power structure of student as volunteer in the classroom, expert power, information power, ecological power and power over oneself are changing in the context of technology. These four powers reside in children's daily experiences and are particularly relevant in our twenty-first century classrooms. The transformational changes of these four powers in classroom settings will bring true power to students' learning and to their motivation for learning. Ultimately, these powers will generate in our children the two ideal outcomes of power: liberation and commitment for their own learning.
Sharma and Hannafin (2007) noted two types of technology based scaffolds: cognitive and interface. The cognitive scaffolds will scaffold a process with supports for the steps involved while the interface scaffolds focus on communicating representations. From my research, interface scaffolds foster curiosity significantly more than cognitive scaffolds. Certainly, scaffolds were not originally conceived as permanent structures. Indeed, scaffolds provide structure and guidance to novices while performing within the zone of proximal development, but this guidance is only offered as long as the novice needs assistance. The ultimate goal of course is that the learner can perform the task without assistance from the expert or without the use of the scaffolds (Vygotsky, 1978). Students' reactions to interface and cognitive scaffolds represent two ends of the scaffolding spectrum and demonstrate students' sensitivity to the amount of guidance or assistance they need in order to learn. For curiosity to flourish, students would rather be in a position of exploration where they are looking for and evaluating the concept under study rather than in a position to be led through to the solution to a problem.
Teacher as Provocateur
Many educators have yearned for a new metaphor for the teacher. It is clear that the “teacher as custodian and dispenser of all knowledge” metaphor is untenable in our information age. Other roles such as facilitator, guide and coach have all surfaced, but most failed to capture the essence or importance of a teacher's role. My favorite metaphor is teacher as provocateur (New, 1998). In this role, the teacher is active in guiding and stretching the students beyond where they believe they can go. It is this active stance that distinguishes the provocateur role from the facilitator or guide role. Further, in the role of provocateur, the teacher is essential but not central. The central element becomes the action of the students that has been elicited by the teacher. In other words, the central element is the learning! Essentially, the teacher as provocateur allows for and supports a community of curious learners. But the teacher is certainly not the only one in the classroom that is active. The students also have a significant role to play.
Strong and Capable Learners
In the classroom of the curious, the image of the learner shifts from one who responds to prompts with appropriate answers to one who is a strong and capable learner (New, 1998). With this view of the learner, I recognize that children instinctively learn from birth through interactions with their world. Children's natural curiosities can be honed in the classroom with important, authentic work that is respected. Indeed, I take students' work very seriously and I have seen that this attitude translates to students taking their own work seriously also. Using reflective protocols and authentic assessments, students' work and thinking has consistently surpassed expectations. Adults can often carry with them beliefs about their abilities to learn based on their experiences as children. Viewing all learners, adult and children as strong and capable and designing curiosity fostering work helps students re-evaluate themselves as learners.
Overall, I believe that learning is exciting. Students and teachers in a classroom that honors curiosity enjoy the hard fun of learning. This is the environment that I seek to build daily.
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