#DailyWritingChallenge - Curiosity
Curiosity and investigation and the foundations of learning and one of my genuine fears as a professional (and a person) is that I will lose my desire to question and learn more about the world around us. I’ve fallen behind with my daily writing challenge but wanted to take this opportunity to discuss the ways in which I believe that curiosity is central to the teaching profession. Firstly, how curiosity is central to the purpose of education and secondly, I will link the ideas of curiosity and wellbeing – how can a sense of curiosity make us happier and more fulfilled professionals?
As teachers, our role is to instil a sense of curiosity in our students; a desire to find out more about our topics and develop an understanding of the complexities of our subjects is central to what we do. How can we expect to do this if we don’t emulate that same investigative spirit? Dewey draws a link between curiosity and the development of knowledge. ‘The more that is taken in, the greater capacity there is for further assimilation. New receptiveness follows upon new curiosity, an new curiosity upon information gained’ (Dewey 1966: 208). As a new teacher, I was always worried that pupils would ask questions that would take me to the edge of my knowledge, but embracing the inquisitive nature of children, who will always ask us such strange and wonderful things, is the best part of the job. There was an interesting article in The Guardian earlier this year that tells us that schools are crushing creativity by stopping children asking questions (Berliner 2020). The article discusses research into the number of questions children ask, the number of which drops drastically once they start school. Reading it has made me wonder how much time I give pupils to ask questions. As we currently adjusting our curriculum (we are moving to four hours a fortnight, rather than three), I now think that I need to ensure that there is time for pupils to tell us what questions they have about our subjects. How can we plan in those “you know, I’m not sure… lets find out” moments?
I am a history teacher and I firmly believe that it is my responsibility (as well as something I enjoy) to keep up to date with current historical research and discuss my current areas of interest with my pupils. A recent example is linked to our GCSE topic of Weimar and Nazi Germany 1918-39. This is a topic that I have taught every year, in one form or another, since I qualified in 2012. I’ve got through phases of enjoying teaching it and also times when it can feel as though there is no ‘spark’ in my teaching as a consequence of the lack of variety. To combat this, I read around different aspects of the topic each year, to engage myself and then bring that sense of excitement to my lessons. Students are always very interested in Hitler’s early life. I realised I had never actually read much on Hitler’s background and so found sections of Ian Kershaw’s work that explore Hitler’s adolescence and young adulthood in detail. There was a palpable shift in the classroom this year. When asked the same questions us history teachers are asked all the time, “Is it true that Hitler had a Jewish doctor and that’s what led to him hating Jews?” “I heard that Hitler’s childhood was totally normal, is that true?” “Would the world be different if Hitler had been a painted?”, I had the chance this year to broach it in a different way. Last year, I would have acknowledged the questions as interesting, before steering the conversation back to topic at hand. Now, I can share my newly acquired knowledge with the pupils, chat about some of the key misconceptions before we continue. The key difference in the two scenarios is that in the first, pupils’ questions are dismissed with the unintended consequence of making the children asking the questions feel as though their contributions aren’t valued. Now don’t get me wrong, I can’t spend all of my lessons chatting about random history facts – we have a curriculum to teach and an exam to prepare for – but perhaps just the acknowledgement that this question is interesting and I’d thought about it too, is a small but important shift.
Curiosity is important for us too. My view is that curiosity can be developed and transformed through the process of research informed practice. Schools that support teachers’ curiosity through a cycle of reflective practice or action research are harnessing that excitement and turning it into something that can be shared. A school culture that encourages experimentation and values new ideas is more likely to engage with research and form trusting working relationships (Brown, Daly, and Liou 2016). Without the freedom to question we can be left with a feeling of belittlement and unappreciation. If we are not given opportunities to reflect on our own practice then we cannot improve our teaching. In a chapter I’ve written for the newly published The Research Informed-Teaching Revolution, I argue that research engagement is central to teachers’ development and it is the responsibility of a school’s senior leadership team to listen to teachers’ questions surrounding research informed decision making. School leaders should also give teachers time to reflect on their own practice through engagement with educational research (Harley 2020). As research-informed practice has become more prominent in the academic literature (dare I say fashionable?!), researchers have sought to explore the climate needed to foster these engaged cultures. Cain’s (2019) idea of a school as an intellectual community would be impossible without a forum in which to debate key questions and come to a shared understanding of how our values are translated into action. I don’t have any data to support this, but I wonder if there is a link between staff retention and cultures where curiosity is encouraged. It is not too far a stretch to argue that a culture without curiosity can only be one of compliance.
It is not just about school improvement through curiosity, but also the idea of self-development. Being curious has led me to start an EdD because I just had to know more about how teachers’ perceive their practice. As the Dewey quote from earlier tells us, the more you know, the more questions you have. This was very true for me. I hope the same is true for my classroom practice. We’ve all heard a paraphrased version of Wiliam’s words “Our daily experience as a teacher is a failure. Which makes it the best job in the world. Because you never get any good at it.” (Wiliam quoted by Quigley 2014) This isn’t a pessimistic view, there is always something to learn about being a teacher and if we stop asking ourselves how we can improve, taking the time to follow our curiosities and link them back to our practice, then we are missing out.
Berliner, Wendy. 2020. '‘Schools are killing curiosity’: why we need to stop telling children to shut up and learn ', The Guardian.
Brown, C., A. Daly, and Y.H Liou. 2016. 'Improving trust, improving schools: Findings from a social network analysis of 43 primary schools in England', Journal of Professional Capital and Community 69-91.
Cain, T. 2019. Becoming a Research-Informed School: Why? What? How (Routledge: Abingdon).
Dewey, J. 1966. Democracy and Education (The Free Press (The Macmillan Company): Toronto).
Harley, C. . 2020. 'Overcoming teachers’ reservations and barriers to engaging with educational research.' in J. Brown Flood, C. Handscomb, G. (ed.), The Research-Informed Teaching Revolution; A Handbook for the 21st Century Teacher (John Catt Publishing).
Quigley, A. . 2014. "Dylan Wiliam: ‘Every Teacher Can Improve’." In The Confident Teacher