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The Importance of Fostering Intellectual Curiosity

By Head of School, Dr. Mike Davis

A few weeks ago, my attention was brought back to one of the more intense
experiences of my life: graduate school. As the world’s attention has been focused on the plight of Syrian refugees converging on Europe, a German graduate student reached out to me to track down a copy of my doctoral dissertation for his own research. My graduate work examined how refugee movements during the Cold War affected debates on American immigration policy and decisions on U.S. foreign policy. Few historians had considered the important relationship between foreign policy and immigration policy, and my study traced how escapees from communist nations in Eastern Europe and Asia presented various problems and opportunities for American policymakers. These refugees destabilized political, social, and economic conditions in friendly nations that took them in, but were also important intelligence and propaganda assets in the fight against communism.
The request for a copy of my dissertation caused me to dig into my computer files and recover my work in ancient versions of Microsoft Word (thanks to Rory Butler for helping convert my files). In the process, it brought back memories of doing in-depth academic research over a prolonged peri od of time. It was not an easy period in my life; it was stressful. I thought back to what motivated me to get it all done. I received fellowships and grants from various organizations and visited the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Presidential Libraries, as well as the National Archives. I was living below the poverty line, surviving on ramen soup, macaroni and cheese, and Coca-Cola to sustain me late at night. I spent long hours with thousands of documents and notecards spread all over my apartment trying to make sense of it all. To be sure, fear of failure motivated me. But, I had two great advisors, Professor Thomas A. Schwartz and the late Hugh Davis Graham, who were so supportive. I didn’t want to let them or myself down. But, ultimately, what motivated me to work hard was a deep interest in the intellectual problem before me.
This summer, a teacher recommended that I read Susan Engel’s A Hungry Mind: The
Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. I urge you to read this book (you can also find a number of her articles online that summarize her research). Engel is a Professor of Developmental Psychology at Williams College. Engel’s research finds that deep learning is connected to curiosity, and that curiosity is something that can be taught.
Her research finds that curiosity is a quality that both teachers and parents value in students. However, she also notes the tremendous disconnect between how our educational system (on a national level) crushes the teaching of curiosity.
In an article published online, Engel argues that, “Research show[s] unequivocally that when people are curious about something, they learn more.” Just as Sir Ken Robinson has noted how the American school system has undermined students’ creativity as they move through the grades, Engel notes, as she has observed many teachers working with students, “I began to see that children’s curiosity was squelched in schools.” In her book, she argues that “Curiosity is the linchpin of intellectual achievement.” Engel finds that, “People who are curious learn more than people who are not, and people learn more when they are curious than when they are not.”
For Engel and other educational thinkers, it’s about helping students understand the larger context of their learning. She says, “Dewey was perhaps the first and most eloquent spokesman for the idea that in order for children to learn, they need to feel that what they are learning has some meaning and significance beyond school.” So, instead of having students work on dry, boring, and abstract problems and homework assignments, teachers have a responsibility to make it real.
I have always been a fan of giving students real-world challenges. We see that right now with Katy Hills and Chris Roads’s Innovations course in which engineering and art students are working together to convert a retired school bus into a Tiny House.
In my own War on Terror class, I have had students, prior to Navy Seal Team 6’s raid on bin Laden’s compound, develop a real world strategy to find and capture or kill Osama bin Laden. A great quote from Engel’s book that she attributes to one of her own professors is, “Embrace ambiguity, but avoid chaos.” Too many schools and teachers are more concerned with the orderly dissemination and regurgitation of knowledge rather than allowing students to find that truth, and understanding truth can be messy. Real-world problems capture our attention.
Brain research shows that, “When interest in information is piqued, [students’] memory for that information enhances. In other words, learning feels good when the material satisfies curiosity and such learning tends to last.” She encourages teachers to introduce “a sense of drama and surprise.” This can “transform a learning activity.” A key goal of teachers trying to inculcate curiosity in their classrooms is to make sure they are encouraging students to ask questions.
Lower School
I reached out to a few CA teachers to see how they engage their learners. Fifth Grade teacher Mary Singer notes, “Any time a child is on the edge of what is comfortable and unknown in their knowledge, that’s when engaged learning takes place. When you see that look of wonder in their eyes, and also a bit of puzzlement, it means that the brain is engaged and is drawing connections with what it knows, and what it is trying to make sense of what is new.” Singer uses an “I wonder….” approach with her students. She finds that questions that invite students to synthesize what they know with what they are discovering are the best entrees into the world of engaged learning. When asked about one of her students who epitomized the kind of intellectual curiosity we so value, she highlighted Levi Pinkert who, two years ago, studied physicist Stephen Hawking. He was fascinated by Hawking’s black hole theories, and studied the physics and math behind the theories. Levi also created a computer program that spoke for him during the annual Images of Greatness evening, similar to the one Hawking uses in real life.
Middle School
In the Middle School, teacher Eric Augustin knows intellectual curiosity when he sees it. While occasionally, this is going above and beyond on a project, the majority of the time, it shows up differently. After being introduced to a topic, suddenly the student is devouring library books on the topic. For example, after studying the Holocaust, students plow through The Book Thief, Between the Shades of Grey, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and more. Last year, Augustin had two students establish a history club to study an area of their choice. Now, there is a Writing Circles club and a Logic club, providing extra opportunities for students to pursue interests and explore their curiosities. Augustin argues that for any assignment to spark intellectual curiosity, it has to have meaning. “For Middle School, I would argue that students must relate to the assignment. They have little patience, rightfully so, for strictly theoretical endeavors, as this level of scholarship is years away. The assignment must engage them — tapping into a desire to explore the unknown while providing them a microphone for the young adult voice that is eagerly trying to be heard. Students are challenging themselves daily with what is important to them — from friends to music selections, from picking a side on a controversial issue to discovering a social injustice that disturbs them. Often, the students and I brainstorm different assessments that could be used to demonstrate the knowledge they have gained in a unit and also honors the hard work they have been doing. This usually results in three or four options from which the students can choose.
Motivation and focus during the project largely becomes a non-issue. While likely hesitant at first, in the end, CA students enjoy a challenge and do not like their time, energy, or thought to be wasted. If you create an assignment that does not respect their abilities, or if they perceive it as lacking an intellectual purpose, they will often begrudge it after the fact, even if it was ‘fun’ while completing it.”
Augustin emphasizes this point: “I would also argue that every assignment or project needs to require that the student ask the next question. Whatever the assignment may be, a narrative essay, a drawing of a political cartoon, a speech, a presentation, or debate, if I simply require that they demonstrate what they have learned, I have not challenged them to think broader and deeper about the issue. As CA’s SPEAK lecturer Sonia Nazario said in her talk here on campus this fall, “The more I study this issue, the more shades of grey I see.” Therefore, in assessments, it is essential to create the opportunity for, and to challenge, the students to contemplate the lasting or meaningful significance of their thesis statement. “
Upper School
In the Upper School, Betsey Coleman has long challenged students to think about the complexity of the world around them. Coleman notes, “Last year when I assigned a digital storytelling project based on Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, I didn’t know what would happen. I was experimenting with digital storytelling and its application to a novel (usually digital storytelling is used for personal stories). So I designed some guidelines that needed to include a “wordle,” quotations by characters, a voice-over, some music, and coming-of-age themes. Beyond the requirements, I told the students they could pick from a menu I created and add their own. This left the project open, but it also gave a scaffold to those who really needed it.” Coleman has found that a key ingredient is to provide some modeling, but really to leave the possibilities open for student exploration. She notes, “[sophomore] Christina Bigger ran with the guidelines, went over and past the limits and ideas, and produced something truly professional: a five-minute digital story titled “Jealousy Ruins,” which provided background for and insight into the novel in a professional and aesthetically attractive package.
Her work included images from the Cultural Revolution, propaganda posters, images of peasant life, themes written in Chinese characters, and music from the Cultural Revolution.” Again, Coleman finds that, “Students often use self and personal experiences that they feel comfortable with. I use the encouragement of others, either by sharing in class or publication.”
There is much that parents can do to support the development of intellectual curiosity. Have dinner conversations. Present your children with real-world problems with no clear solutions as items for discussion around the dining room table. Ask questions and try to probe what questions they have. Get your child’s reading list and familiarize yourself with what your child is studying so you can ask questions. We know — particularly for parents of teenagers — that it sometimes can be hard to get beyond one-word answers. But, I know that our students want to be engaged as we see the amazing things that they do when they ask questions.
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