Curious Schools: The Secret to Improving Education

Many people today believe that the secret to improving education is through high standards and accountability, but the truth is that it is about creating learning communities and spaces that are characterized by curiosity and a love of learning. I meet more than a few people in education who believe that such a statement is idealistic and unrealistic. If I had not witnessed such schools in action, I might be tempted to believe them. As it stands, I an grateful for the many visionaries who persisted with the dream of creating cultures of curiosity and they succeeded in doing just that. I’ve visited too many of these schools to believe that they don’t and can’t exist. They exist with struggling learners, at-risk learners, advanced learners, and learners across the socio-economic spectrum. They exist in rural, urban and suburban settings. They exist with the youngest learners all the way up to hostels for retired people. Learning communities characterized by curiosity and a love of learning are both possible and necessary.

As part of the 10-episode pilot of the MoonShotEdu Show, Suzy Siegle and I recently interviewed Zoey Haar, a member of the founding class of the Minerva Project, one of the most promising and innovative higher education experiments that I’ve seen to date. It is an incredible vision for higher education. Students study in different parts of the world. In lieu of a traditional campus, the cities in which Minerva students live are their campuses. They have a curriculum focused on nurturing 150 increasingly complex skills during their time in the program, and they have completely abandoned the role of the lecture (instructors are not allowed to speak for more than four minutes). As Zoey explained, this is not a program intended to prepare them for a specific job title. It is about nurturing people who can identify, grapple with and find promising solutions to complex problems in the world. Add to that ample real world internships and a network that connects these students with world-class leaders and innovators and you have a grand vision for higher education of the emerging future.

When I asked Zoey what all the students at Minerva had in common, she listed several things, despite that fact that the founding class is from around the world. However, the first thing that she described is that they are all deeply curious. Granted, this school is committed to matching the education provided at the most élite schools in the world and they are clearly admitting students ready for such a challenge. As such, some will argue that Minerva created a culture of curiosity by simply admitting people who are already highly curious. Is that the only way, or is it possible to create learning spaces that actually nurture and expand the curiosity of the people?

I acknowledge that people seem to have different natural levels of curiosity, but I’ve also seen curiosity nurtured and inadvertently squelched. Tests and high standards can aid in improving performance, but the much more challenging and important task of nurturing curiosity and a love of learning is what best equips people for an action-packed lifelong journey of learning and discovery. One is about producing short-term results. The other is about equipping people for a lifetime of results, results shaped by the unique gifts, talents, abilities and callings of each person. One is transactional. The other is transformational.

In Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, Todd Kashdan explained that, “There is no human competence which can be achieved in the absence of a sustaining interest.” He went on to write that curiosity is not necessarily about what is happening around a person. It is about, “recognizing novelty and seizing the pleasures and meaning that they offer us…It is not about whether we pay attention, but how we pay attention to what is happening in the present.” Curiosity is a mindset, and it can be developed. We can learn to be increasingly curious about the world around us, but we can speed that development by designing learning communities that value and invest in the growth of curiosity.

Cultures of curiosity are contagious. When learners find themselves immersed in a community of peers who are deeply curious and love learning, they often find their own curiosity amplified, celebrated, and rewarded. This is often not an easy task, but here are some starting points for a school (or classroom) committed to becoming a culture of curiosity and a love of learning.

  1. As school leaders, become really curious about curiosity and how it is nurtured. Care about that more than test scores and traditional measures. Look for it in the school and in the people in the school. Look for where it is growing and where it is diminishing. Invite the community into a school-wide experiment to see how one community can transform itself into a place of deep curiosity and a love of learning.
  2. Visit places that have a reputation for a culture of curiosity. Visit, listen and learn as much as possible. Don’t limit yourself to schools and learning organizations. Wherever curiosity is rampant, put that on your list of sites to visit.
  3. Celebrate curiosity and learning. Put them front and center in your learning organization.
  4. Have the courage to minimize or remove the impact of that which competes with curiosity and a love of learning (grading systems and methods that nurture a culture of earning, test-driven approaches to instruction, fear-based discipline tactics, bullying and a lack of encouragement among learners, etc.).
  5. Focus on important, compelling, meaningful questions and inquiry more than covering content. This doesn’t mean that you ignore content, but starting with questions will drive learners to a much deeper exploration of content.
  6. Focus on meaning, purpose and calling of the learners. Persistently return to this. Tie everything to it. When what I am learning is framed in terms of something meaningful to me, connected to my purpose or calling, then I am far more likely to be curious. When the most engaging thought experiment for a learner is how to avoid school or how to cheat on an assignment or test; you know that you don’t have a strong culture of curiosity and a love of learning.
  7. Use the language of curiosity and learning (journey, discovery, explore, etc.).
  8. Invest as much time and energy as it takes to create, sustain and protect positive peer interactions, accountability and support.
  9. Make accountability and achievement the price of having persistent access to this culture of curiosity and a love of learning. It isn’t the end goal, but it can play a useful role as long as it is not allowed to dominate the time, thoughts and efforts of the learners.
  10. Leave time and space for curiosity to emerge. This means time for deep and extended learning. It also means not over-scheduling activities so much that I don’t have time to self-organize, explore, reflect, and manage my own exploration.
  11. Let go of the myth of coverage. The drive to cover all the “material” kills curiosity. It makes learning a chore, sometimes for learner and teachers in the community. After all, just covering something doesn’t result in learning anyway.
  12. Work with each student to discover what sparks their curiosity and what they love to learn. Find ways to help them create space and opportunity to feed those interests.
  13. Model the curious life. Don’t hide your love of learning, your deep curiosity about the people and practices in your organization. Make it your healthy obsession.

There are so many opportunities to improve education, but I suspect that investing our time and energy in nurturing the virtues of curiosity and a love of learning is a promising starting point. It is far more likely to yield the longterm results that we want than focusing all of our energy on policies about tests and standards.