How I Got My Students to Be Curious & Enjoy Learning

teachers

If we want students to learn, engaging their curiosity is a key component in 'priming' the brain. However, while you are turning on their curiosity, there is no reason you can't make it enjoyable, too!

Let Curiosity Drive Learning

Sometimes, especially as a science teacher, my natural impulse is to explain how everything works. However, it turns out that simply downloading information to our students' brains is counterproductive to the actual goal of teaching. Science shows how important a role curiosity plays in learning.

For example, a 2014 study conducted at the University of California at Davis found that when participants were asked questions about personally high- and low-curiosity topics they'd been exposed to, their brains were more likely to remember the answers for the questions about high-curiosity topics and even unrelated images presented between high-curiosity topics. The researchers measured increased activity in the midbrain and nucleus accumbens of participants' brains during states of high curiosity, suggesting that curiosity physically prepares the brain to learn. So as teachers, if we want students to learn better, we have to turn on their curiosity and help them enjoy learning.

I Stopped Explaining Everything

Let's say students need to learn about the structures of the cell. Before, I would just stand there and lecture on the parts of the cell. Maybe I'd show them a video or read the textbook. But that didn't make students curious about cells or help students understand the parts of the cell any better. So one year, when I came up to this topic in the pacing guide, I made the active decision to not lecture about it. Instead, I put together a kit for each group. Within the kit, there were materials such as microscope slides of various types of cells, from animal to bacterial. There were other materials as well that would be useful, such as samples of cork, and books and pamphlets about some of the key scientists who discovered the cell and its functions. Within the box were all of the answers I wanted students to learn - just not in the form of lecture notes.

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I handed these materials to them with a single question: What makes living things different from an object such as plastic? Then I told them that at the end of the week, they had to stand before the class and 'prove' their answer was correct. My initial gut reaction was along the lines of What have I done! But I bit my tongue, hung out, and observed. The open-ended challenge of it all got them curious.

Most groups started by perusing all the materials I had given them and then making a list of all the information they already knew about the question. For the next few days of class, they argued, compromised, and argued again. No computers were allowed! If they needed help with a microscope, I jumped in. When they came to me with a question, I answered with another question to keep them moving along. Along the way, I carefully made sure I never just handed them an answer. Instead, they had fun and arrived at their own answers. No two 'proofs' were alike - but they all covered the fundamentals of the cell. And unlike my lecture method, months later they still remembered what makes a cell a cell because it was driven by their curiosity and competitive nature - not my lecture notes.

Turn On the Creativity

The next step in making my students curious and igniting learning was for all of us to turn on our creativity. Now if you are an English teacher or art teacher, that process may seem fairly straightforward. You think of art or creative writing. However, igniting curiosity and creativity in social studies, science, or even math class can be a bit more challenging. You have to think outside of the box a bit more.

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Let's take, for example, a dissection. You could just tell the kids you will be doing a dissection on Friday, but that (I have learned) doesn't drive their curiosity or engage their brains creatively - both of which help them enjoy learning. So I had to think about what would make me interested in a dissection.

I took a cue from my English teacher and decided, in the name of learning, I would 'kill' Wilbur Pig from the childhood classic Charlotte's Web. I took a box, put my fetal pig inside (sealed in its preservative) and wrapped it in caution tape. For days my students asked me about the box, and I simply said ''it was for class on Friday'' and kept at whatever we were working on. I started leaving other clues around my room over the next few days. I left a copy book Charlotte's Web propped up next to my computer. I showed them cryptic short videos claiming someone had sent them to me via email that alluded to aspects of the 'crime.' All of these peaked their curiosity.

Presenting the dissection creatively helped them learn much more effectively. My staging the dissection as our 'autopsy' got them to roleplay as coroners, which most of them embraced with the fun and sense of humor that was intended. The added fictional elements of the crime engaged their higher order thinking skills so that they were truly determined to find Wilbur's murderer as we moved on from the autopsy to other forensic science activities that I creatively weaved into the crime. It worked so well that some of my fellow teachers even tried it out in different ways in their classrooms, staging 'mystery boxes' with creative challenges as lead-ins to tough topics so that students brains were primed to learn.

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Curiosity Enhanced Learning

I will admit, it's not easy to peak student curiosity all the time. Sometimes I go all out as I did in murdering Wilbur. Other times, I present it more to students as I did with my box of 'cell stuff' and make them prove the answer to the question. In either case, I have learned that you have to engage students' curiosity. Talking all day does the opposite of my goal as a teacher, which is to help them learn. Instead, I have to loosen my reins a bit on the standards and let curiosity drive learning.

By Rachel Tustin
February 2018
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