Curiosity… (2)

Here’s the first post about the book. This post will cover some of the stuff included in the remaining chapters of the book.

“It’s not easy to get an accurate or reliable picture of children’s curiosity at school. To begin with, the data are, almost by definition, descriptive. We can watch to see how many questions children ask, how often they tinker, open, take apart, or watch — but it’s virtually impossible to track the thoughts of twenty-three children during a classroom activity. However, we can measure how much curiosity children express while they are in school. […] We wanted to find out whether children expressed curiosity when they began grade school, and how different things looked by the time children were finished. We recorded ten hours in each of five kindergarten classrooms and five fifth-grade classrooms. Each time we visited, we recorded the children for two hours. […] Three students were trained to code the data, and achieved a high rate of inter-coder reliability. It turned out it’s not all that hard to spot curiosity in action. But what we found took us aback. Or rather what we didn’t find. On average, in any given kindergarten classroom, there were 2.36 episodes of curiosity in a two-hour stretch. Expressions of curiosity were even scarcer in the older grades. The average number of episodes in a fifth-grade classroom was 0.48. In other words, on average, classroom activity over a two-hour stretch included less than one expression of curiosity. In the schools we studied, the expression of curiosity was, at best, infrequent. Nine of the ten classrooms had at least one two-hour stretch where there were no expressions of curiosity. In other words, we rarely saw children take things apart, ask questions about topics either children or adults had raised, watch interesting phenomena unfold in front of their eyes, or in any way show signs that there were things they were eager to know more about it, much less actually follow up with any visible sort of investigation, whether in words or actions. The easiest interpretation is that children are simply less curious by the time they are in kindergarten and grow even less so by the end of grade school. However, the data don’t support that conclusion. For one thing, we saw as much variation between classrooms as we did between grade levels.”

“Our discovery, that there is little curiosity in grade school, is confirmed by the work others have done. Recall that Tizard and Hughes fitted preschoolers with tape recorders to get a picture of how many questions they asked at home with their parents (the answer […] is that preschoolers ask a lot of questions). However, Tizard and Hughes also recorded those same children when they went to preschool (1984). Once inside a school building, the picture changes dramatically. While the preschoolers they studied asked, on average, twenty-six questions per hour at home, that rate dropped to two per hour when the children were in school. […] One striking feature […] was how curious children were about anything that seemed exotic to them. Topics that led to a series of eager questions included the Rocky Mountains, Pangaea, Venus flytraps, unusual geometric shapes, trips to Mexico, and the Australopithecus Lucy’s descendants. But their episodes of curiosity were brief, often fleeting. Some 78 percent of the curiosity episodes involved fewer than four conversational turns. We also timed these sequences, since we were interested in nonverbal inquiry. Not one episode lasted longer than six minutes, and all but three lasted less than three minutes. We never saw an episode of curiosity that led to a more structured classroom activity, or that redirected a classroom discussion for more than a few moments.”

“Our impression was that most of the time teachers had very specific objectives for each stretch of time, and that a great deal of effort was put into keeping children on task and in reaching those objectives. […] Mastery rather than inquiry seemed to be the dominant goal for almost all the classrooms in which we observed. Often it seemed that finishing specific assignments (worksheets, writing assignments) was an even more salient goal than actually learning the material. In other words, the structure of the classroom made it clear that the educational activities we saw were not designed to encourage curiosity — nor were teachers using the children’s curiosity as a guide to what and how to teach. […] in the classrooms we visited, there was little or no evidence that an implicit or explicit goal of the curriculum was to help children pose questions. […] an important but easily overlooked distinction [is] between children’s engagement and children’s curiosity. A teacher can be talking about things that captivate the students, and the students can be deeply interested in a topic — quite engaged in a discussion or activity. But that in and of itself doesn’t mean the children are asking questions, or that their questions reflect curiosity. […] a key finding of our research so far [is that often] the reason children ask few questions, and fail to examine objects or tinker with things, is that the teacher feels such exploration would get in the way of learning. I have even heard teachers say as much. […] “I can’t answer questions right now. Now it’s time for learning.” […] A student and I sent out surveys to 114 teachers. In one part of the survey, they were asked to list the five skills or attributes they most wanted to instill or encourage in their students over the course of the school year. In the second part of the survey they were asked to circle five such desirable attributes from a list of ten. The list included words like “polite,” “cooperative,” “thoughtful,” “knowledgeable,” and also “curious.” Some 77 percent of the teachers surveyed circled “curious” as one of their top five. However, when asked to come up with their own ideas, only twenty- three listed curiosity. […] The impediments to curiosity in school consist of more than just the absence of enthusiasm for it. There are also powerful, somewhat invisible forces working against the expression and cultivation of curiosity in classrooms. Two primary impediments are the way in which plans and scripts govern what happens in most classrooms, and the pressure to get a lot of things “done” each day. […] Once children get to school, they exhibit a lot less curiosity. They ask fewer questions, examine objects less frequently and less thoroughly, and in general seem less inclined to persevere in sating their appetite for information.”

“When children have trouble learning, we think we need to teach it in a different way, or impress upon them the importance or usefulness of what they are learning. We encourage them to try harder, or spend more time trying to learn, even though it’s usually more effective to elicit their interest in the material. […] Several studies confirm the commonsense idea that children remember text better, and understand it more fully, when it has piqued their interest in one way or another (Silvia 2006; Knobloch et al. 2004).”

“Some would argue that the work of researchers like Robert Bjork (Bjork and Linn 2006) and Nate Kornell (Kornell and Bjork 2008) demonstrates that difficulty is key to learning. In what is now a large series of studies, researchers have shown that when students struggle a bit with the material they are learning, they learn it better.”

“Though researchers and teachers must deal with the fact that there are significant individual differences in what stirs a child’s interest or urge to know more, it is also possible to identify some general qualities that seem to make an object or a topic more or less intriguing to the majority of students. […] In the observations of curiosity that my students and I have done in classrooms, we have noticed one […] topic that consistently sparked children’s curiosity — intellectual exotica. […] Often what ignited a line of questioning was a reference to something outside the children’s zone of familiarity — unfamiliar places, historically distant times. […] children are often as curious about things they cannot see, touch, or directly experience as they are about what is going on right around them. […] the more unknown and unfamiliar a topic, and the denser with details its presentation, the more it may invite learning. […] The characteristics that fuel curiosity are not mysterious. Adults who use words and facial expressions to encourage children to explore; access to unexpected, opaque, and complex materials and topics; a chance to inquire with others; and plenty of suspense . . . these turn out to be the potent ingredients.”

“children are frequently privy to language not directed at them. The conversations adults have with one another influence how children talk and think. […] By the time children are four or so, they not only listen to their parents talk about other people — they also begin, in fledgling form, to gossip themselves. […] Daniela O’Neill and her colleagues tape-recorded the snack-time conversations of twenty-five preschoolers over a period of twenty-five weeks. Over 77 percent of the conversations children initiated with one another referenced other people, and nearly 30 percent mentioned people’s mental states. […] Peggy Miller’s work (Miller et al. 1992) shows that by the time children are five, more of their stories include information not just about themselves, but about themselves in relation to other people.”

“Sandra Hofferth and John Sandberg (2001) drew subjects from the 1997 Child Health Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a thirty-year longitudinal survey of a representative sample of families. […] While three-to-five-year-olds spent approximately seventeen hours a week in free play, most of them spent less than one hour a week outside, and less than two hours a week reading. By the time children were nine years old, they spent no more time outside, and far less time in free play (just under nine hours a week). They spent even less time reading (one and a quarter hours per week).”

“In an examination of how adults use the Internet to pursue a recreational interest in genealogy, Crystal Fulton (2009) found a link between amount of pleasure and effective persistent information-foraging strategies. The key to her argument is the role of time — she points out that when students feel pressured to complete an assignment, they experience less pleasure, and also engage in less thorough search behavior. That finding is replicated in a wide range of studies of online foraging.”

“The children who will get the most out of opportunities to work on their own (deciding what to tackle, and what to concentrate on) are the ones who can stay focused, stick with a question, and plan how to solve what ever problem intrigues them. In other words, at their best, autonomy and self-regulation go hand in hand. But in the world of real classrooms, every teacher must figure out how to balance the two. If a child doesn’t seem to have a great deal of perseverance, focus, or self-control, the teacher must decide whether to give him more autonomy so that he has a chance develop self-regulation, or whether to make autonomy the prize for self-control. […] This book for the most part has not focused on fleeting moments of curiosity, but the kind of curiosity that persists, unfolding over time and leading to sustained action (inquiry, discovery, tinkering, question asking, observation, research, reflection). Such sustained inquiry may be more likely to blossom when children have free time, and some time alone.”

“Many teachers […] discourage uncertainty, emphasizing instead what they know, or feel the students should know. They are more comfortable encouraging students to learn trustworthy information than to explore questions to which they themselves do not know the answer. Instead of using school as a place to formalize and extend the power of a young child’s zest for tackling the unknown or uncertain, teachers tend to squelch curiosity. They don’t do this out of meanness, or small-mindedness. They do it in the interests of making sure children master certain skills and established facts. While an emphasis on acquiring knowledge is reasonable, discouraging the disposition that leads to gaining new knowledge squanders a child’s most formidable learning tool. […] curiosity takes time to unfold, and even more time to bear fruit. In order to help children build on their curiosity, teachers have to be willing to spend time doing so. Nurturing curiosity takes time, but also saturation. It cannot be confined to science class. […] Teachers should provide children with interesting materials, seductive details, and desirable difficulty. Instead of presenting children with material that has been made as straightforward and digested as possible, teachers should make sure their students encounter objects, texts, environments, and ideas that will draw them in and pique their curiosity. […] to cultivate students’ curiosity, teachers need to give them both time to seek answers and guidance about various routes to getting answers, such as looking things up in reliable sources or testing hypotheses.”

“Few teachers readily see that they’re discouraging students’ questions, just as few parents readily see that they’re short-tempered with their children. […] One of the key findings of research is that children are heavily influenced not only by what adults say to them, but also by how the adults themselves behave. If schools value children’s curiosity, they’ll need to hire teachers who are curious. It is hard to fan the flames of a drive you yourself rarely experience. Many principals hire teachers who seem smart, who like children, and who have the kind of drive that supports academic achievement. They know that teachers who possess these qualities will foster the same in their students. Why not put curiosity at the top of the list of criteria for good teachers? […] in order to flourish, curiosity needs to be cultivated.”


April 15, 2015 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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