Inspired Learners Growing from Inquiry

This week we’ve hosted the regional GIN conference and it couldn’t be more inspiring!  Seeing our students come together with over 80 kids from the region to explore, teach, and learn about different issues has sent a jolt of energy through the campus.  Exploring topics such as Carbon Footprints, Korean Smart Cities, and Socially Responsible Enterprises, these globally-minded advocates are working to create a better future for themselves and generations to come.  The best part of all of this learning…it’s all optional and totally voluntary!  IMG_6414.JPG

Global Issues Network is not a mandatory class, it is not a requirement, and it is not an obligation.  The students have chosen to get involved with these projects and dive into the process of making change because they are interested and dedicated.  They are digging deep to learn everything they can about certain topics; spending time researching, sharing, and then working for change because they are curious and caring.  The curiosity that our students have about these topics combined with the permission to be inquirers and ask questions has created a situation ideal for exploration…and they’re learning at an amazing rate!  

As I’ve discussed in the past, curiosity may have killed the cat, but thankfully we’re not cats!  Curiosity is considered by many to be a character “strength” (or “trait” depending which research you’re reading) that has a strong effect on learning.  Students who have a strong natural penchant to be curious and students who’ve learned to be curious both have a higher academic success rate than students who lack curiosity.  Those students who demonstrate IMG_6405.JPGcuriosity about a topic also tend to receive more attention from their teachers, potentially worsening the challenge for those students who may already be struggling in a particular subject.  All of this naturally begs the question, if curiosity is important and some kids aren’t “curiosity-inclined” then what can we do as educators to foster their interest in a subject?

Good question, glad you asked 🙂

In the lower grades our students have no homework except to pursue their passions and bring what they’ve learned to school in order to share with their peers.  These “passion projects” have sparked an interest in learning that previously may not have burned so brightly.  The smiles on the faces of these students as they pass by in the morning with their passion projects in hand is infectious, they are excited and proud of their learning.  What, however, are they learning?  Well, I’ve seen kids code their own video games, complete full research projects about crocodiles, and construct working volcanos out of chocolate and marshmallows (a couple different skills there!)  Just like our older students’ interest in Global Issues, these projects have been completely voluntary and self-directed.  These students are learning because they want to and because they enjoy the opportunity.

As our students grow older we tend to focus on the content that we “have to teach” and worry less about what the kids are actually interested in learning.  What about something like the Innovation Academy (IA) though?  As a number of us learned on our visit to the FDR school last year, this is a real thing and the students who are graduating from this program are doing so with an incredible range of skills.  The inclusion of inquiry in our academic programs need not be as drastic as creating a completely different track such as the IA has done, we can do this in a much more manageable and “bite-sized” way.  

Now, as I recently wrote, we need to give ourselves permission to stop.  I am certainly not asking you to do more.  What I am asking you to do is to stop and take a few minutes to reflect about your next unit or perhaps one that is still a couple units down the road.  Next, evaluate the priorities for learning and consider where student engagement in the material falls on that scale.  Where can you add opportunities for inquiry and exploring curiosities into the learning?  Would doing this increase student engagement?  Perhaps this looks like students choosing a character in Romeo and Juliet, comparing them to a real world person/celebrity, and developing a way to share their comparison with their classmates.  Maybe in Science class they can apply an equation or scientific process to a real world situation and create a simulation to share with their peers.  Student-driven doesn’t have to mean only student-driven, provide them with the guidelines and allow them the choice of inquiry within those guidelines.  Our students have passions, they’re human after all, let’s encourage them explore those passions and at the same time give them a glimpse into the real-world application of their school work.  

“What, of course, we want in a university is for people to learn the skills they’re going to need outside the classroom. So, having a system that had more emphasis on inquiry and exploration but also on learning and practicing specific skills would fit much better with how we know people learn.” – Alison Gopnik (professor of psychology and philosophy at UC-Berkeley)

“A subtle thought that is in error may yet give rise to fruitful inquiry that can establish truths of great value.” – Isaac Asimov (author and scientist)

“Educationists should build the capacities of the spirit of inquiry, creativity, entrepreneurial and moral leadership among students and become their role model.” – A. P. J. Abdul Kalam (former president of India)