Provoking curiosity: a teacher’s job

As always, this week contained many moments of powerful engagement. It provoked my own thoughts as well. Just yesterday, fourth and fifth grade students joined eighth graders, who were working to make complex mathematical processes understandable.  How exactly do you write and solve a problem that involves multiple operations?  How and why should I understand Pascal’s Triangle? How can a linear equation enable me to purchase the right amount of ice cream (or some other desired product)?

As these varied discussions (and many others) took place, minds were alert and filled with new questions and pondering. This type of engagement happens every day and lies at the heart of deep learning and thinking here at school.

As a part of a Harvard online course, twelve Mustard Seed teachers have been working intently this spring on the important task of “developing a culture of thinking” and “making learning visible.” The action of questioning is one of the many components under examination. Asking the right questions, as a matter of habit, is essential to developing deep understanding.

ask these questions often:

Whether at home, at school, in our silent thoughts, or in conversation, the following kinds of questions should always fill our minds:

  • Noticing: What do you notice when you look and listen closely?
  • Wondering: What are you curious about?
  • Perspective: What’s another angle (or viewpoint) on this?
  • Reasoning: Why do you think this is true? What evidence is there for this?
  • Connections: How does this fit with what you already know?
  • Complexity: What lies beneath the surface of this relationship?
  • Salient Ideas: What is at the core of this situation?
  • Explanations: What is really going on here?

Just last week, Early Childhood Director Shanna Pargellis rightly commented, “The teacher’s work is to provoke curiosity or to notice and respond to it.”

I would affirm that this is as true in seventh and eighth grade as in the Nest. It is our calling, as teachers, to ask good questions and to inspire young people to do the same.

Recently, the seventh grade class, as a part of their Science Exhibition work, posed many questions as they considered various phenomenon. Many students pursued special interests in natural disasters.

science exhibition2

Two seventh grade students, in particular, found that tornadoes considerably provoked their thinking. Moved by curiosity, these two avidly researched video and personal accounts of fire whirls, dust devils, cyclones, and water spouts. In each step, they questioned the reasoning behind each source,noticing that some sources and perspectives are more reliable than others. They were, over the course of weeks, continually impressed with the connections between the different types of tornadoes, the complexity of what really goes on, and the structure at the core of this phenomenon.

Ultimately, their curious questioning led to the creation of a model (complete with heated water and dry ice) in order to visibly demonstrate the process of tornado formation. Even the chosen materials reflected questioning about what sort of model would most accurately communicate the natural processes to a younger audience. Naturally, this exhibition prompted still more questions when presented to fourth and fifth grade students at the annual seventh grade Science Exhibition.

science exhibition

Yes, curious questioning is a catalyst for fully engaged learning. In the preschool, our youngest students are naturally moved by curiosity. In the seventh grade, while carrying out research, writing essays, constructing models, and teaching others, the same curiosity moves us still. When we are filling our roles best as teachers, students, from the youngest to the oldest, are continually provoked to wonder about the great complexities that surround us.

Kathy Hanson

KATHY HANSON, Director of Grades 2-8