6 October 2010: World Full of Curiosity

Imagine a world full of curisoity

Does learning begin with a statement or a question? Why do the best teachers oftentimes answer questions with questions?

Why was Socrates found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens? Why did he drink the hemlock? Why is his way of getting students to discover truth still held to be the quintessential methodology of inquiry-based instruction?

Why is it easier, however, for teachers to focus on rote memorization and regurgitation of fact? Why has the state of Colorado determined that essential learning can be measured relative to artificial standards by way of artificial assessments?

Why are book-smart people considered to be highly educated? Are smart and educated interchangeable synonyms?

Why do school districts hold that their goal is 21st-century learning, yet continue to operate a system and structure as antiquated as the Model T production line? Why do you suppose why is my favorite interrogative?

Isn’t it around the pre-school age when little ones begin to challenge the world —authority — around them by asking why? Isn’t it also the age children begin to give voice not only to their desire to be independent but also to their wonderment of the world?

Why can that be exasperating for some parents? Why do other parents find joy in their children asking incessant and innumerable questions?

Wouldn’t it be great if we gave permission to students to seek affirmation and to explore from the beginning of their academic careers instead of numbing them with humdrum? Wouldn’t it be great if schools emphasized process over content, that is, finding the answers to why and how rather than demanding who, what, where and when? After all, aren’t answers to the latter easily gotten by utilizing basic Internet research skills?

By what grade do students learn that intellectual risk-taking is not valued? By what grade does cynicism often set in? By what grade do students begin “to figure it out” and “learn to play the game”? By what year of their careers do some teachers reach similar conclusions?

Why does that happen? Is it possible to remain enthusiastic about learning and teaching life-long? Does curiosity have to kill the cat?

Would it be an asset to the community if one of its schools broke the mold by creating an environment and process that stimulated and provided for students’ inquisitiveness? What if such a curriculum would be cost-neutral to local taxpayers, in other words, cost us nothing?

How might students respond when given permission to learn authentically? Might they be anxious or relieved? How about parents, the district administration and school board? How might teachers respond?

Have you had enough questions?

OK, but a few about you: Did you find the continuing questions irritating? Unnerving? Rather, did you find them stimulating, engaging? Do you feel more at ease in the structured world of the declarative or in that of the open-ended, undefined interrogative? Is that due to your nature or to the way you were conditioned?

While visiting with Carlson Elementary principal Marcia Jochim and two teacher-leaders, Anne Marie Schmidt and Heather Huntoon, about the Carlson Academy for Responsive Education, what struck me is that it’s organic, homegrown, “intentionally designed,” as they describe it, for the Carlson Elementary learning community. CARE can become Carlson’s school-wide, inquiry-based approach to learning.

The impetus for CARE sprung from a three-day workshop with a Gilpin School District consultant who has assisted the Carlson staff in designing and potentially implementing it. Once staff members decided to collaborate on creating an “affordable, flexible, sustainable” program to meet the school’s diverse needs, they realized they are themselves a treasure trove of talent.

The teachers say CARE is about “developing investigative units for students that are rigorous and yet responsive to the needs of individual students” so to “awaken the genius of our students.” They list eight active-verb bullets in participial form — respecting, building, providing, assessing, implementing, creating, sharing, and owning — to explain the process. To get the “what” to each, you’ll need to do some personal research.

The teachers quote Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”

I rarely disagree with the grand lady, but I wonder: Does a child need a fairy godmother to endow it with curiosity? In other words, is curiosity instilled or innate? If innate, are encouraging adults and an environment that provides for exploration and independent thinking and learning ultimately what children need?

Where could we be in a generation or two if we provided that type of education for every child? Might we, before we depart from this realm, live in an advanced society that actually values thoughtful discourse and dignity for every human being? Can we, as John Lennon sang, imagine?

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