My goal for this coming year is to foster curiosity in my students. I want to create an environment where it is safe to ask questions and to wonder. It needs to be a place where the goal is not Right Answers. Two experiences this Fall deeply influenced my thinking about what I want to create in the coming months. The first was during a research project. The students chose topics that were of interest to them in American history – food, clothing, architecture, etc. The goal was for them to learn about their topic during each of the different time periods that we were covering in class. They would become the experts on housing or commerce or whatever their topic was.
One of the first steps was for them to generate a list of questions that they wanted to investigate. What did they want to know about their topic? The startling effect of posing this task for them was how unable they were to figure out what they wanted to know. They wanted to know what was the right aspect to be researching, what were the right questions to be asking. They were clearly insecure about articulating what was interesting to them. “What should I want to find out about?” was the primary question. They wanted me to tell them what they should want to learn about. They are products of our system, one where it is often about a correct set of facts and not about the learning journey. They are most secure, being the necessary information to memorize and simply being asked to respond with those facts.
We, as educators, can’t allow them to stay in that place. There is so little need to simply learn a set of Right Facts in today’s world. Their phones hold all of that information and more. They need to learn to ask questions and to manipulate the data to build new understandings and then to be able to present their thinking in original and informative ways. We have to unleash our students from the dictatorship of single, right way to learn and show what they know.
This is scary for us as teachers. It takes us out of our own comfort zones. It is much easier to grade a multiple choice quiz than a variety of dioramas, PowerPoints, videos and essays. But when we pull back from what we imagine as the Right Way, we open the doors to their curiosity and investigation. We have to teach them to wonder and to explore without the constant worry of a bad grade or of rejection of their thinking and process. I need to keep this as a mantra for this year.
My second experience came during a simulation based around the Indian Ocean trade networks. It was built on one that I have used before from Berkeley. It started with an investigation of some “artifacts.” In a plastic ziplock bag, I had put items that had been traded around the Indian Ocean – pepper corns, coriander, cardamom and a cinnamon stick. To those I added some laminated images: Chinese porcelain plate, a piece of papyrus, a brass jug and some glass beads. I gave groups of 3-4 students a bag to explore. They had a great time, asking questions and wondering about the origins and uses of the different spices.
After about 15 minutes, on one of my wanderings, I realized that many of the students had not only been smelling the different spices, but they had broken them up and eaten them. After an initial moment of horror that there might be food allergies to contend with, I marveled at what happens when students are deeply involved in an investigation. They immediately moved out of a standard, school, fill-in-the-blanks kind of response and went surging forward, using every tool that they could think of, which included eating them.
So my goal for the year is to remove the barriers that hold back those kinds of investigations and to create activities that encourage exploration. Some of those will be with digital tools, but the goal is not to use more technology. The goal is to facilitate a new depth of learning in each of my students.