By Lynsey Peterson
One of my children’s first and favorite television shows is Curious George. Spinning off from the popular book series and movie, the television series follows the exploits of the little monkey as he explores his urban and rural neighborhoods. Unlike some of their other favorite shows, Curious George is also one of my favorites. The show’s tone is not whiney or sarcastic, and it teaches many math and science concepts through George’s adventures. The main motivation for George’s adventures is his curiosity. Despite what the Man in the Yellow Hat tells him, George finds it difficult to be a “good little monkey” – not that he is bad, he’s just so curious! He always tries to do what he should, but his curiosity gets the better of him; he finds himself on an adventure with unexpected consequences. My children laugh as they relate to George’s misunderstandings and honest mistakes.
In the animal world, we see curiosity and play as a sign of intelligence. Human children and the animal species we deem as intelligent are social, playful, and curious about the world around them. Curiosity and play are naturally woven together. Human adults who find their chosen work and hobbies to be like play are generally more satisfied and accomplished in their work. Through play and exploration, we can learn in an authentic and enjoyable manner, achieving the state of flow that is both productive and engrossing.
I believe that fostering a playful educational environment is as important as establishing connected relationships in our classrooms. In fact, the two approaches can be used hand in hand. A student who has a connection to his teacher and sees him or her having fun is more likely to be playful in his learning. And a student who has a playful educational experience in the classroom is one who is more likely to have a connection with her teacher. Nurturing curiosity is the best way that I know of to make learning fun and playful. But how can we continue to encourage and harness the power of curiosity in education, especially as students become more mature? How can we allow for fun in this high stakes era?
To harness curiosity in any classroom, there are many strategies that can be used. As a biology teacher, my favorite method was changing our scenery from time to time. In addition to a yearly field trip, I would find other places outside to take my students. Schools vary in their outdoor resources, but even a small patch of grass and some sunshine can change student perspectives. The key is to not just go outside and do book work, but to change scenery for a purpose that brings the content to life. The outdoors can give the context you need, but so can other locations within a school. Of course, with today’s technology, you can bring the context into the classroom with the careful integration of media. Integrating other subjects into interdisciplinary studies can also spark curiosity and make students enthusiastic about learning.
Using interdisciplinary unit studies, media, and other techniques all make content relatable by giving it richer context within the students’ lives. Context is key to curiosity for many students because it makes the content relatable to their lives, no matter what their ages. We can also build context through storytelling. History and language arts come alive when placed within the context of a story to which the students can relate. Interesting biographies and connections between different historical and literary figures can build context as well.
Context is not the only key to encouraging curiosity in the classroom. Other play-based strategies can be used to capture student interest. Logic puzzles and educational games are good ways to encourage play and curiosity. When they are intrinsically motivating and at the right challenge level, students can become completely engrossed and forget they are learning.
A common element that all of these approaches share is that they make the students, at least momentarily, forget that they are working on the serious business of learning. For curiosity to flourish, students must feel comfortable taking risks. They must forget grades, standards, and tests to focus on the present moment and the joy of discovery. Because of this, it would seem that the world of standards and assessments are at odds with the natural curiosity of children. In fact, they do not have to be, but it may require finesse and effort to integrate these worlds.
Teachers, educational leaders, and content developers must all work behind the scenes to incorporate the backbone of what we want all students to be able to understand and do. Our work is not only in determining the learning objectives but also in translating those objectives into meaningful experiences that allow students to experience curiosity and discovery. High quality educational content and assessment at its best gives teachers tools that inspire them and gives students a way to demonstrate their understanding without always being so intensely aware of curricula or testing. In everything we do, we can keep the goal of making learning enjoyable and motivating by focusing on peaking and satisfying curiosity.
Lynsey Peterson is the Content Area Director for Math and Science at A Pass Educational Group