Thursday, January 17, 2008

Learning: a risky business

I was in a great discussion the other day with a colleague about the idea of curiosity. We were doing our usual toiling with the question of why students aren't motivated to learn; they don't seem to pick up skills from the classroom or the world around them. We came to the point wishing we could have students who were more curious. We, both of us being high school teachers, wondered what happens to students between that time in elementary school where curiosity is abound, and the time they enroll in our classes.

I wonder what approaches foster curiosity and which approaches stifle it. I wonder what curiosity has to do with brain development and social development of teenagers. I think it warrants some reflection and not just empty questioning so I'll give it a shot.

What makes someone curious?

Well, I think, in order to feel curious, you have to feel that there is something worth discovering. For example, you aren't going to lift every rug in your house unless there's an expectation that something might be under it (say a quarter or that CD you've been looking for). You have to have some sort of reward occasionally in order to make it worth while.

I also think to be curious you can't be scared something awful will happen. If you lift that rug and find a killer dust bunny, then you're likely not to go lifting rugs in the future.

You also have to feel some ownership and permission. We don't often go lifting rugs at a neighbor's house, because it's not ours, and we are not typically encouraged to.

So how does that translate into education terms? Well, I look at it this way. How often do we encourage risk taking? Think about it. In most high school classrooms, exploration is not an option. You read, write, add and subtract what you're told to. You even ask permission to use that bathroom. Yes, I know that we have to be responsible for the supervision of students, but when will we start to encourage kids to take a risk in learning?

What could we do to encourage this? Well, for one, why not allowing students more practice with a set of skills that we expect them to achieve, and provide them with some meaningful feedback? Is everything graded and a "one and done" assessment? If so, why would students try to take that risk. We should reward students for taking reasonable risks in learning: ask and seek answers to their own questions, make predictions and, above all be reflective about their process. If we want students to be able to leave us, life-long, independent learners, we can't ignore this. How often do we ask students to reflect not just on what they learned, but how they learned it. If you had to do it over again, how would you go about it differently?

I know this post is kind of a rambling and it doesn't really give a definitive answer, but isn't that what life is about: the questions and the search for the answers?

1 comment:

jenifer said...

Risky business, indeed! (great movie, BTW - before Mr. TC got really annoying). What is risky promises the most return. That is, if we seek to control learning (in people of any age) they will not truly learn. I think as teachers we need to create the conditions where people can take risks, experiment, try things and yes! even make mistakes! and step back. When we trust people to take care of themselves we show them the respect all people require to grwo and thrive. Just a few random thoughts to add to the ramble, Jeff!