What are You Doing to Encourage Curiosity in Your TEACHERS?

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.


(Original Image Credit: Ollyy/Shutterstock)

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.




Related Radical Reads:

Is Learning a Joyful Act in YOUR School?

Rethinking Teacher Professional Development

The Teacher Professional Development Fail


4 thoughts on “What are You Doing to Encourage Curiosity in Your TEACHERS?

  1. David Jakes

    Hmmm…some pushback for you.

    I think the comment from LaurenUSA reflects the perspective of many in education – that it is the responsibility of the teacher to supply engagement for students. That means, depending on the quality of the lesson, the students are either engaged or not. The danger in this thinking is the perspective that engagement is supplied externally, rather than manifested from and by the student themselves. A better way, at least in my opinion, is to create the cultural conditions for empowerment of students that enables engagement that originates intrinsically. The notion that curiosity must be activated by the teacher, and not originate from students and how and why they learn is quite troubling as a perspective, and is reflective of years of “schooling” that suppress the wonder and curiosity associated with learning.

    Which brings me to my second point.

    I’m guessing that you would say the reason for the outcome(s) that I described above is the result of this: “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.” That’s a broad statement to make, a generalization certainly, and just not true across all schools in the country. It’s certainly not been my experience, where teachers had the latitude to create conditions for learning that were expected of educational professionals. Perhaps it is indeed yours, but it’s difficult for me to buy into a set of ideas that are based in sweeping generalizations.

    With that in mind, you continue: “Why would teachers who are rarely encouraged to take intellectual risks make intellectual risk-taking a priority in their classrooms?” Like the engagement statement which places the responsibility for developing engagement as an external condition, so does this perspective, in that intellectual risk-taking only occurs when there is permission, or encouragement, from someone else, in this case undoubtedly the admin in charge of intellectual suppression. That’s too bad that teachers can’t take risks on their own – and even more sad that they’ve become that compliant, and ultimately disengaged from thinking on their own.

    I do like your ideas about next steps even though they still reflect the need for external permission to move forward (“giving teachers first-hand experiences”). Teachers couldn’t ask 3-4 questions on their own? But perhaps your ideas could be a step forward where the culture of what takes place in a school develops so that educators can shift their perspectives about agency and what it means for them as well as for their students.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      Dig the pushback.

      A few reactions:

      1). Maybe what school leaders need to encourage/enable in teachers (and teachers need to encourage/enable in students) is agency — not curiosity. When people feel empowered to take action, they are more likely to create action-centered learning spaces.

      2). That agency doesn’t always exist in schools. In fact, you could easily work your way through a career without creating a lesson on your own or design a unit on your own in many schools. Heck, in many districts there are curriculum guides with lessons and assessements for every subject that teachers could work through without question. And in some, following that pacing isn’t optional. It’s mandatory.

      3). What’s even more frightening is that flexibility is generally a gift given to teachers in “high performing” (read: low poverty) schools. The more students from poverty that you serve, the more compliant you are likely to HAVE to be — which, in turn, bleeds into classroom instruction.

      I think the only place where I disagree with your thinking is here:

      That’s too bad that teachers can’t take risks on their own – and even more sad that they’ve become that compliant, and ultimately disengaged from thinking on their own.

      Here’s the thing, David: Taking risks has gotten a helluva’ lot harder to do simply because the stakes are so ridiculously high for classroom teachers in tested subjects and in states where evaluation is tied directly to performance on end of grade exams. It’s easy to say, “just do the right thing,” but it’s never that easy.

      And my argument in this piece is that it is the job of school leaders to MAKE it that easy by openly encouraging the right kind of behaviors. As a teacher, I’m sick of hearing people tell me all of the things that I should be doing while simultaneously creating structures and systems that do nothing to encourage/model/support those very behaviors. We say, “be creative. Be curious. Take risks.” Then we create pacing guides, put teachers through one-size-fits all PD and threaten teachers with incredible consequences if their students “fail” against ridiculous metrics.

      That’s bunk.

      Want to see agency in classrooms? Encourage it in every action in your district.

      Does this make sense?

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  3. teacherdiana01

    Hey Bill! A great resource that I could add to the conversation is called “Spirals of Inquiry” by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser-in association with the BC Principals and Vice Principals’ Association. It goes through the process that you are challenging the Radical Nation to take on. From the back cover “…you will read arguments for the importance of considering and combining wise, strong and new approaches to inquiry and learning. You will be introduced to a set of questions that can shift thinking and practice. You will explore the key stages in the spiral of inquiry and you will consider ways to incorporate current knowledge into your designs for professional learning. We hope you will feel better equipped to create the kinds of inquiry learning communities required to get the outcomes for young people that we both want and need.”
    Judy and Linda are incredible educators at our local university, (Vancouver Island University) and can be found on Twitter at @JLHALBERT and @lkaser

    BC has redesigned the curriculum to be inquiry based and focused on core competencies-I think we are really ahead of the curve up here in #sd36learn by embracing change and supporting teachers and principals with resources and professional development.

    Hope this resource helps you as much as it helps us!

    Keep up the good fight, Bill-you’re right on the mark with what’s best for kids!

    All the best,

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