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.

Excessive Teaching Stifles the Love of Learning

Come to the edge,” he said.
They said, “We are afraid.”
“Come to the edge,” he said.
They came.
He pushed them. – Guillaume Appollinaire

I came across a picture recently where a parent or teacher was holding up a sign that said, “Excessive Testing Stifles the Love of Learning.” I agree. You could take an otherwise engaging activity (whether it be in the classroom, on the basketball court, in the wilderness, or even on the playground), and turn it into monotony by filling it with testing. That is just poor instructional design. Feedback and tracking progress are good, even important in many contexts, but testing isn’t the only way to do that. Just throwing tests into otherwise engaging learning environments does little to improve the learning environment. In fact, it can sometimes do the opposite. Yet, testing is not the focus of this article. As much as I agree that excessive testing stifles the love of learning, excessive teaching also stifles the love of learning. Excessive learning, on the other hand, is what I want to see.

What do I mean by excessive teaching? I’m referring to teaching that doesn’t leave room for students to learn how to self-direct and self-regulate. I’m talking about obsessive talking and explaining, filling in all the blanks, not leaving room for messy learning, and running the classroom like one is trying to control a team of bridled horses. As a way of explaining what I mean, I’ve included a series of six quotes followed by a brief commentary.

“Schooling, instead of encouraging the asking of questions, too often discourages it.” Madeleine L’Engle

Excessive teaching is about asking questions and often answering them too. What we want is a learning spaces where teachers ask questions, but students ask even more. And students are the ones exploring and grappling to find answers that often lead to more questions.

“None of the world’s problems will have a solution until the world’s individuals become thoroughly self-educated.” – Buckminster Fuller

Self-education and human agency go hand in hand. If we want to nurture a growing sense of agency in people, then that means less explicit teaching and more nurturing people on how to own and manage their learning.

“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” ~ Jean Piaget

Discovery is a precious gift. Excessive teaching robs learners of that gift. Or, it is at least a bit like running up to someone and unwrapping their birthday presents for them. Where is the fun and excitement in that…at least for the person with the birthday? We want to remove the equivalent in our classes. Teachers, please stop opening all the presents. Give the learners a chance at the fun and excitement.

“I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependent, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities.” ~ Seymour Papert

“Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.” ~ Alfie Kohn

We want authentic, real-world (or at least simulated) activities where the learner is making decisions, experiencing and reacting. This is where some of the best learning happens.

” I learned most, not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me.” –  St. Augustine

Augustine’s quote represents the distinction between learning from and learning with. One is about control. The other is about community. If we can nurture robust and vibrant learning communities, then I think we can address many serious concerns about modern education. The answer is not more or excessive teaching. It is creating spaces for excessive learning.

New MOOC on the Power of Self-Directed Learning

I’m excited to announce the next MOOC that I will be hosting called Adventures in Self-Blended (and Self-Directed) Learning starting on August 15. All are welcome to sign up now through the end of the course. For those who are used to Coursera and EdX MOOCs, you may not know what to expect. My work tends to be, well, unconventional. I have every intention of making this MOOC a wonderfully enriching, quirky and unconventional learning experience. I tend to approach MOOCs less as courses and more like experiences that leverages the power of life in a connected world; and I am committed to making this a MOOC that helps celebrate and spark greater interest in the power of curiosity, a love of learning, human agency, and connected learning. If any of these interest you, I welcome you to sign up and help make this an experiences that amplifies the promise and possibility of self-directed learning in a digital age. While I am the course host, I aspire for this to be a course that leverages the wisdom and creativity of the community.

If you’ve participated in one of my past MOOCs (Learning Beyond Letter Grades, CheatMOOC, or Adventures in Blended Learning), you have some sense of what to expect; but I have a few new twists in mind as well. Yes, there will probably be some use of digital badges. We will leverage the power of crowd-sourced knowledge generation. There will be some suggested resources and live events with inspirational figures in the self-directed learning world. There will be challenges and resources to help you think about how to apply these ideas in your own life and learning communities. There will also be opportunity to connect and collaborate with others around the world.

What is self-blended learning? Some use it as a synonym for what they refer to as the a la carte form of blended learning where students select between face-to-face and online courses amid a larger course of study. I have been using the term differently. I am looking less at a course level, and more at the micro level. I use the phrase to represent students (or just people) taking the initiative to self-blend their learning.

This can include:

  • unschooling,
  • people in traditional schools who enhance/augment/supplement their otherwise traditional face-to-face learning by taking advantage of life in an increasingly connected world,
  • people building rich and rewarding learning experiences by mixing and matching resources, activities and communities online and offline,
  • learning in formal and informal contexts,
  • and pretty much any learning that taps into aspects of heutagogy and/or self-directed learning…usually by blending digital and physical resources.

I’m still working on the course design, and I will likely be doing so until the official start of the class. Well, that isn’t completely accurate because I treat MOOCs as dynamic communities, which means that the course will be in flux even as it is running as I and other co-learners contribute new ideas, activities, resources, and experiences.

I probably should have led with the compelling why, but in this case I’ll finish with it. Why a MOOC on self-blended learning? It is because I believe that curiosity, a love of learning, human agency, and connected learning are some of the most critical issues for our age. They are more important than testing, national standards, integrating technology, learning analytics and many other aspects of the contemporary education landscape. We read research showing that non-cognitive skills or signature strengths have a huge impact on lives of people. If we can help people discover how to own and shape their learning throughout life, then we have finally lived up to that age-old cliché about teaching a man to fish versus giving him one. The why behind this MOOC is nothing short of striving to draw as much attention as possible to the power and possibility of nurturing a generation of curious, courageous self-directed learners.

10 Ways to Foster a Culture of Curiosity in Your Learning Organization

Do we want to nurture a culture of earning or a culture of learning? That was the driving question behind the Beyond Letter Grades MOOC that I hosted in 2014, and it remains a driving questions for much of my work in education. More recently I’ve started to review the existing research on curiosity, with special thanks the work of Todd Kashdan. In his text Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, Todd makes a compelling case for the value of nurturing curiosity in our lives. His journal articles provide further insight. In “How are curious people viewed and how do they behave in social situations”; Kashdam, Sherman, Yarbro and Funder (2013) note links between curiosity and “tolerance of anxiety and uncertainty, positive emotional expressiveness, initiation of humor and playfulness, unconventional thinking, and a nondefensive, noncritical attitude.” In “Interesting things and curious people” by Silvia and Ksashdan (2009), they reference connections between curiosity and intelligence, physical health, happiness, even positive relationships. Kashdan and Yuen (2007) also wrote, “Whether highly curious students thrive academically depending on perceptions about the school learning environment.” They found that, “the benefits of curiosity are activated by student beliefs that the school environment supports their values about growth and learning; [and] these benefits can be disabled by perceived person-environment-mismatches. In my words, one size does not fit all, but the student perception and experience seems to be of critical import

Reading the research on curiosity is part of my effort to reconsider the priorities in our learning communities. As it stands, it is hard to deny that our larger educational system emphasizes a culture of earning. College is divided up into credits, and I often see excellent students struggling to take as many credits as possible. Contrast that with a student who takes fewer credits so she can dive more deeply into a couple of topics. Instead, the student ensures a schedule and workload that is counter to feeding curiosity and deep learning. It is about earning the credits that leads toward earning the degree. I’m not disconnected from reality so much that I ignore some of the practical factors of cost and time, but a culture of earning will continue to diminish the value of formal education unless we do something about it. It is, I contend, one of many reasons why there is so much criticism about the cost of higher education. Cost is out of control, but it doesn’t help that we also have K-12 schools prioritizing things like standardization, testing, analyzing data, and measuring success by things like GPA, test scores, scores, and grades; and we have a higher education system that often seems more interested in cost and time to graduation than value and depth of learning. Where do we leave the time and emotional space in the lives of learners to feed their curiosity and cultivate a love of learning? It happens for some students, but it seems to be despite the system that we’ve created. Some wonderful teachers and professors create space for curiosity to grow, but students remain inhibited by an overall system focused on earning and performance.

As explained in a 2013 whitepaper from the Center for Curiosity:

“Yet despite the ubiquity of such experiences, the majority of our schools and curriculums seem not to consider curiosity at all, focusing instead on rote memorization, subject-specific skills, standardized assessments which emphasize learning minimums, and disciplinary procedures that encourage silent knowledge consumption rather than inquisitiveness or interaction. Such practices tend to emphasize outcomes over the learning process. Furthermore they limit what children should or can learn and prevent any exploratory learning that fosters curiosity and leads to more sustained educative engagements” (Shankar & Durrani, 2013).

Nurturing a culture of curiosity in our learning organizations has immense potential for improving the lives and experiences of learners. It will contribute to positive outcomes (as we see in learning oragnizations that already do this), and figuring out how to make values like curiosity and the love of learning central in learning organizations might even help reverse some of the negative attitudes and critiques about K-12 schooling and formal higher education.

How do we get started? As I begin to think and learn more about curiosity, I offer ten steps toward nurturing learning communities rooted in curiosity and a love of learning. These apply to the K-12 setting, higher education, and almost any other learning organization.

1. Minimize the focus on scores, test performance, rankings and earning certain grades.

These all shout culture of earning. It doesn’t mean we need to ban them, but if we want it to really be about the learning, then we need to have policies, processes, practices and a most importantly a culture that truly celebrates learning itself, not these numeric symbols that we associate with it.

2. Encourage risk-taking, experimentation and exploration.

Where and how often are these attributes a part of the frequent, daily experience of learners in our organization? This also means that we need to go beyond just teaching in a fun an enthusiastic way. It is great for a teacher to be curious (because it is contagious), but we are trying to help nurture people who have a personal connection with curiosity and a love of learning. One way to get at this is to introduce students to environments and experiences that they’ve never imagined or experienced before; but do so in a way that gives them adequate safety so that anxiety doesn’t muzzle the curiosity.

3. Provide space for deep learning.

Yes, there are times for survey knowledge and exploration, but curiosity breeds more curiosity, and some of the most engaging learning experiences come from being getting lost in the study of something…sometimes for hours, days, weeks, or months. How much does that happen in your school? This also means leaving room for what I call lopsided learning, students having deeper insight into some areas than others because of where their curiosity leads them. Of course, there is need for shared learning experiences around some topics considered valuable for modern life and citizenship, but there is also need for different types of people with distinct strengths, passions, interests, and skills.

4. Celebrate and encourage calculated risk taking.

Taking calculated risks in the pursuit of knowledge or discovery is a great way to spread curiosity in a culture. Different learners will have varying levels of tolerance for risk and the associated anxiety. Over time, all learners can build growing confidence and their curiosity will drive them to endure stress and anxiety associated with some risks. This can become a powerful cycle among individuals and the overall community.

5. Reframe failure as a tool for learning, and de-shame it.

We all know the famous Edison quote about failures. We learn from them. They come hand in hand with #4, risk-taking. Failures are wonderful tools for learning. Failures in our effort to learn something are not to be sources of shame, but sources of feedback on the learning journey. Help learners discover how to suck the marrow out of temporary setbacks and failures. There are too many nutrients in failures to let them go to waste.

6. Teach and celebrate the art of asking powerful, sometimes provocative, and compelling questions.

Questions are invitations into the world of curiosity, unless they are just asked so we can teach students to memorize a cookie-cutter response without deep understanding and exploration. Ask open-ended questions. Maybe consider reviewing some of the great resources on socratic teaching. Also think about how we can teach students to frame and ask questions; and then how to come up with ways to explore and discover answers.

7. Build deep knowledge, understanding and a shared vocabulary around the research on signature strengths and non-cognitive skill development; especially those under the category of “wisdom.”

Some make false assumptions that being curious or loving learning are unnamable, fixed traits in learners. While some may be predisposed to be more curious than others, there is a helpful body of literature showing us that these traits can be nurtured and that there are significant benefits to doing so. Also help learners discover and leverage their signature strengths. There are several simple survey tools that serve as great discussion starters.

8. Keep it central in the community conversations.

Amid all the other priorities, the interest in curiosity can get pushed to the side. So, don’t let that happen. Talk about it all the time. Cast the vision for a culture of curiosity over and over again, and in different ways. Tell stories of curiosity. Celebrate evidence of curiosity. Continue to share resources and research about curiosity. If curiosity and the love of learning become the dominate conversation among teachers, students and school leaders; that is a promising sign.

9. Put the Curious on Display

Bring in guest speakers and guest mentors from diverse fields, disciplines and walks of life. These are people whose curiosity compelled them into intriguing and high-impact living. These might be scientists, authors, artists, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, public servants, athletes, health care providers, clergy, along with people who chose the less traveled paths in life with great benefit. The research seems to show that curiosity is contagious, so why not inject high doses of this wonderful virus into your community and watch it spread? Having someone there to share for an hour is nice, but if we can get people to hang out for a day or week, that is even better. Let them connect with individual learners and groups enough for the curiosity bug to spread.

10. Provide opportunity for learners to share their curiosity with one another.

If, as I noted in #9, curiosity is contagious, then we want to do whatever we can to help it spread. We can bring in the curious from the outside, but we also want to find ways for learners to share their passion, excitement and discoveries with one another. We are looking for rich descriptions that paint vivid pictures for students about the life of curiosity.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, but these ten provide a great start in helping to make the shift from a culture of earning, to a culture of learning; one that is notably interested in curiosity and a love of learning.