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Fostering curiosity here, there and everywhere

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When I speak with students, I often ask, “Who wants to become successful?” All hands shoot up.

Then I tell them the story of nuclear physicist Isidore I. Rabi, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 1944 for work on the electron. Somebody once asked him how he became a world-famous scientist.

“My mother made me become a scientist without ever intending it,” he said. Then he told this story. “Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn asked her child after school, ‘So, did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She asked a different question, ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’ That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist!”

And that difference could transform education worldwide without costing a dime.

Here’s what we can do here, there and everywhere.

Model our curiosities: Share with our students and children what we are curious about in the world. My grandfather taught me this years ago when he asked, “Johnny, did you ever wonder why the sun setting on the horizon appears larger than at its zenith?” Then we figured out an answer.

I share my own curiosities: Why does one maple tree along the highway turn brilliant red/yellow/orange in the fall while those next to it remain green? What makes music so appealing to humans? How much does or can a baby learn in her first year?

Observe and wonder: In the backyard, let’s look at birds and their behavior. Note that certain birds fly directly into a bird feeder (chickadees) and others (cardinals) flit from branch to branch before they swoop down for food. Why?

Observe different cloud formations — how and why do they form like that?

In our classrooms we can bring in artifacts (real objects like sea shells) related to our units of instruction (Life Forms/Habitats/Change) and ask, “What do we notice here?” Becoming keen observers is the beginning of inquiry. Then, “What do we now wonder about this artifact?” Record all questions.

We can then challenge students to organize their questions into ones that might align with our lines of inquiry and/or create new, more intriguing ones.

Students’ questions will serve as major drivers of inquiry because students now have a stake in their own learning.

Problem-based instruction: We have known for many years of the efficacy of students’ learning from the process of thinking through complex problems (Tyler, Bransford and many others). Giving students time and opportunities to think through scenarios that embed within them major concepts, skills and ideas gives them further opportunities to ask good questions and pursue lines of inquiry.

Out by the local pond: “Suppose you were in charge of this area, and wanted to make changes. What do you observe? What would you need to know? How could we go about finding answers?”

At the beginning of a unit on civics, we can pose this problematic scenario that could serve as a summative assessment: “You are representatives of the local city council, and because of low voter turnout, need to find ways to engage more citizens in their civic responsibilities. Develop long-range plans to be shared with civic leaders that take into account which current/past voting patterns are feasible, economical, bipartisan, based on Constitutional principles and use the resources of our educational system. Keep journals of your thinking.”

Fostering curiosity leads to exploration, engagement, positive self-assessments, self-determination and belief that goals are attainable.

“Did you ask a good question today?”

John Barell is veteran educator — New York City, Montclair State University, The American Museum of Natural History — fostering inquiry, purposeful investigations and critical thinking through problem-based learning. Most recent publications are “Why Are School Buses Always Yellow? Teaching Inquiry PreK-5” and “How Do We Know They’re Getting Better? Assessment for 21st Century Minds, K-8.” Barell maintains personal blogs at Curious Minds and Antarctic Dreams.