Nurturing Curiosity in Our Students and Our Teachers

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed., SURN

We all want students who are inquisitive and engaged, and the 6th annual Joy of Children’s Literacy & Literature Conference on October 5 provided a multitude of ideas and strategies for creating classrooms that capitalize on students’ natural wonder, passion, and curiosity. Breakout sessions on using inquiry learning, teaching with images and dialectical journals, creating games and text sets, and engaging with poetry every day were bookended by keynote speakers Harvey “Smokey” Daniels and Georgia Heard.

Pictured left to right: Associate Dean of Teacher Education and Community Engagement, Dr. Denise Johnson; SURN Director, Dr. Amy Colley; and Keynote Speakers Georgia Heard and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

Pictured left to right: Associate Dean of Teacher Education and Community Engagement, Dr. Denise Johnson; SURN Director, Dr. Amy Colley; and Keynote Speakers Georgia Heard and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

Smokey Daniels, author of The Curious Classroom, contends that our students are already curious; in fact, they come to us that way. Our task is to tap the power of their amazing and interesting questions by creating classrooms that honor this curiosity. Citing the research on curiosity, creativity, project-based learning, persistence, and genius hour, Daniels offers a “ladder” of ten key strategies for creating a culture of student-directed inquiry:

  1. Demonstrate your own curiosity
  2. Investigate ourselves and our classmates
  3. Capture and honor kids’ questions
  4. Begin the day with soft starts
  5. Check your news feed
  6. Hang out with an expert
  7. Pursue kids’ own questions with mini-inquiries
  8. Address curricular units with mini-inquiries
  9. Lean into a crisis
  10. Learn with partners and pioneers

Although Daniels’s ideas can certainly foster classrooms that engage primarily in inquiry learning, he encourages teachers to start with small commitments of time. Many of his ideas take fewer than fifteen minutes to implement, allowing teachers to start small and to continue as they see the positive results of engaging students in seeking answers to their own (and each other’s) questions.

Daniels also focuses on using images to spark student inquiry, reminding us that “text” can be interpreted broadly. He invites us to move beyond the narrow definition of text as printed words on a page and to understand that in addition to the written word, student wonder can be also be engaged by working with photographs, artwork, cartoons, diagrams, charts, and music.

If Daniels invites students to explore their curiosity by opening their minds, Georgia Heard invites them to do so by opening their hearts. Heard, author of Writing Toward Home, Awakening the Heart, Heart Maps and others, relayed her passion for helping students explore their innate sense of wonder through writing. Working from a simple heart drawn on the page, Heard urges students to explore those people, memories, places, and ideas about which they feel passionate by drawing and doodling images, supplemented by words and phrases for clarification or expansion, that resonate with them. The opportunity to slow down, to ponder their beliefs and ideas, and to commit them to paper creates the foundation upon which students build pieces of writing based on their own natural sense of wonder.

Although Daniels and Heard’s ideas center primarily on creating deeper student learning and engagement, savvy instructional leaders may well consider how to adapt Daniels and Heard’s ideas to promote a learning culture among their faculty.  Given that “today’s students urgently need to see as many thoughtful, curious, resourceful, and critical adults as they can” (Daniels, 2018, p. iii), it is incumbent upon school leaders to promote a school culture where faculty can develop their own curiosity and use it for school improvement. Design Thinking for School Leaders by Gallagher and Thordarson (2018) urges leaders to cultivate wonder intentionally by building empathy through curiosity, by routinely posing questions to all stakeholders, by honoring their creative ideas, and by designing opportunities to challenge the status quo.

Many of Daniels’s suggestions for how to honor and pursue students’ questions can easily be adapted to foster adult learning among faculty. Modeling curiosity, building relationships, honoring everyone’s ideas and questions, providing outside expertise, and engaging in research to satisfy our curiosity all promote a learning culture within our schools. Heard’s ideas, too, find a place in such leadership by inviting faculty to explore what they feel passionate about when it comes to students and teaching and learning.

Communication: The beginning and ending of leadership

by Jamon H. Flowers, M. Ed., SURN

As a principal, what is your vision? Do staff members know what needs to be done to reach that goal? Do they know how you expect them to reach that goal? More importantly, do they know why this goal is vital to meet? And once they understand the “what,” “how,” and “why,” do you provide them with enough autonomy to get the job done in an effective and timely manner? These are pragmatic issues that principals encounter. Here are a few thoughts I have on how to more effectively address these issues and reach set goals in an authentic and enduring manner.

Collaborative vs. Solitary

Before anything else, engaging stakeholders, such as teachers, parents and community members, in conversations about where we are and why we are there, where we need to go and why we need to go there, and how we are going to get there and why we are traveling the path(s) to get there are pivotal. Notice why is included in each question. Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, the fact that you are seeking and valuing their perceptions increases their commitment and confidence which reduces resistance when it is time to implement. This collection of perspectives helps to pinpoint what needs to be done (the what), action steps needed to deliver (the how), and the reasons for doing it (the why) helps to keep everyone focused.

Telling Your Why

Principals have the best intentions but need to remember that people are not mind readers. That’s why it is important to share your why. Tell your staff and communities why you choose to lead your school, your vision for the school and how you will get it done. Often, principals, especially those new to their school buildings, are met with more resistance due to the lack of communication. People do not give support for what they do not understand or fear. In this case the fear of the unknown. State and live your commitments on a daily basis. You are being watched by all to determine if your why is at the forefront of your actions.

Give Them Space

Early in my administrative career, I discovered that my message of the importance of teachers having autonomy was not demonstrated in my actions. I was dictating the paths to achieve set goals. Staff and teachers became more concerned about meeting my expectations versus completing their work in a quality way.

The lesson I learned was that being too rigid compromises an individual’s ability to perform. There is nothing wrong with giving teachers the flexibility and freedom to interpret change so that they can get the job done in a way that works for them and the school. Remember, when we ask for change teachers are on the front lines. They have the skills and capability of executing in the moment, so let them do it and provide them with resources and support. Doing this gives them a sense of ownership, pride, and a boost in their morale.

 Celebrate

One of the simplest acts of showing gratitude is to celebrate. Celebrate those who contribute to the success. Leaders cannot change an organization alone as it takes an entire team to achieve this goal. When implementing change it is inevitable that we will experience setbacks. However, it remains crucial to celebrate whether it is a big or small victory.

As a principal, I celebrated my staff frequently, especially during testing season. During this intense period, I made sure staff was showered with gifts, food, and other incentives. For example, community partners provided faculty and staff lunch for an entire week. Additionally, the parent-teacher association (PTA) supplied teachers with baskets full of snacks and inspirational quotes. At the end of each school year, awards and trophies were distributed to those individuals who exceeded expectations. Teacher morale, their sense of efficacy, and their commitment strengthened. I was told on many occasions they felt appreciated and valued- two emotions that are sometimes absent in the education system. Let us be honest with ourselves: we all want to experience those feelings on a regular basis and when we do, we are motivated to do more for a cause. Remember to celebrate students and community members, too.

Final Thoughts

If we are not careful, visions and declarations are merely promises. As a leader, your job is to translate those promises into practical, on-the-ground performance through a complex sequence of interactions, on a daily day. It is crucial that you use each interaction as an opportunity to practice the elements listed above. Aim for improvement with each interaction. Commit to developing ever greater clarity and capabilities so that you may become ever more helpful in the moment. So, say what you care about, make it clear what you intend to do, and remain accountable.