In a response to my recent bit on the importance of encouraging curiosity in the classroom, an undergraduate education student going by LaurenUSA made an important point that I hadn’t considered. She wrote:
“Ironically, I also see that I will have to use my own curiosity and creativity alike to come up with the actual assignments that will engage students in their own curiosity! However, I feel that as an educator this will be an important part of my job.”
That’s legit, isn’t it? Learning spaces that value interesting questions over correct answers are most likely led by curious teachers.
But here’s the hitch: We do next to nothing in most schools to encourage curiosity in our faculties. Instead, we develop rigid pacing guides and require everyone to work through them in the same order without question. We provide highly structured sets of instructional materials that require little in the way of imagination to be delivered. We set predefined learning requirements for professional development that everyone is expected to master regardless of their current levels of experience or expertise.
Sadly, learning for the adults in our school buildings is rarely inspiring or creative or self-directed. Teachers aren’t free to explore and experiment their way to new discoveries. Our work is heavily governed by decisions made by people in positions of power. If we want to wonder or imagine, we do that on our own time and our own dime. Curiosity becomes a subversive act — a risk taken by those who simply aren’t satisfied with the scripts that we are expected to follow.
Can we REALLY be surprised, then, when those same practices define today’s classrooms?
Why would teachers who are rarely encouraged to take intellectual risks make intellectual risk-taking a priority in their classrooms? How can we expect teachers who spend their careers learning to follow paths created by others to design learning experiences that facilitate multiple paths to mastery? When will we realize that every choice that we make for the teachers in our buildings sends explicit messages about what we value as a learning organization — and that the work happening in our classrooms is a mirror reflection of the work happening in our professional development sessions?
So here’s a challenge to every principal and district level professional developer in Radical Nation: Start your next school year by asking individual teams of teachers to develop sets of three or four learning-centered questions that they are curious about. Then, commit regular time during faculty meetings and inservice professional development days to the exploration of those questions. Ask teams to share what they are learning. Push them to take their questions further. Celebrate every discovery regardless of how small those discoveries may seem to you.
You will have to be patient and prepared to provide differentiated support to the teams in your building. Teachers — like students — haven’t had many opportunities to set their own direction. Some will struggle to get started. Others will stumble along the way. All will benefit from targeted and timely suggestions about new directions worth considering AND your ability to marshal resources and opportunities uniquely suited to individual needs.
I promise that there will be moments where you question whether anyone is learning and whether the time that you are investing in the entire process is “producing tangible results” or “having a direct impact on student learning.” In those moments, remind yourself that the outcome that matters most ISN’T testing results. Instead, it is giving teachers first-hand experiences with the excitement that comes from asking and answering interesting questions.
The simple truth is that teachers who see learning as a joyful act are more likely to create joyful learning experiences for their students.
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