Blog post by Stacy Gasteiger, PTAC Member
“Why do we get potholes in the road?”
“How do the flowers know it’s time to come out?”
“How fast does a hummingbird fly?”
When children are young, it seems like the questions never stop. Everything is a matter of curiosity and wonder. They spend their time investigating everything they see, whether that means sticking it in their mouths, touching it all over, or watching warily from a careful distance.
Unfortunately, this attitude of curiosity and wonder can be seriously diminished once students enter school.
The pressures of mandated testing and evaluation by test scores push schools and teachers to narrow their focus onto tested subjects, primarily math and reading. This can lead to prescribed curriculums that decrease a teacher’s ability to foster that sense of wonder in students.
However, it’s when we give students an explorer mindset that real learning can occur, and students become intrinsically motivated. Inspired by my relationship with National Geographic, I have spent the last several years aspiring to turn my students into curious and responsible explorers of their own world.
Teachers can first and foremost encourage students to become explorers by becoming explorers themselves. Learn a new subject, try a new type of food, or visit a place you’ve never gone and then share the experience with your students. Students love to hear how their teacher was nervous, but tried something new anyway.
When they see or hear their teacher reaching out and flirting with failure, students have the confidence to try a little harder and know that failure is just the first step into a new adventure.
Next, share explorations of topics and ideas with your students. In my classroom, my students have virtually visited with scientists and researchers from all over the world.
We’ve chatted with a fish researcher in Angola, a tsunami expert in Israel, and a volcanologist in the U.S. When a student has the opportunity to learn from an expert, you will be amazed to hear the questions they ask. (And don’t be surprised by the, “Do you like candy?” questions as well.)
My third-graders wrote letters with suggestions for our town—and the mayor came to class to listen to them. Suddenly, I had a classroom of students who understood how local governments work and were annoyed that they had to wait until 18 to vote.
Finally, let students explore on their own, preferably outside. When students are exploring outside, they learn that the world is not a series of multiple-choice problems. There are real questions to ask and real, complex issues that need solving.
My students have studied local soil samples and compared them with other parts of the world, used trail cams to track local wildlife and come up with ways to analyze the data, and gone fossil hunting to reconstruct ancient Pennsylvania.
When I give my students the agency to do the exploring on their own, they are initially confused, and then completely empowered. One girl with a difficult home life became fascinated by our study of paleontology. When we went on our fossil hunt, she peppered the paleontologist with dozens of questions that he was thrilled to answer. Now she hopes to become a geologist and wants to know what she will need to study to achieve her goal.
Students are capable of so much more than simply following required curriculums. It is up to teachers to instill an explorer’s mindset so students continue exploring like they did when they were little.