I saw this question tweeted today by @surreallyno :
Why is it that traditionalists rarely, if ever, emphasize curiosity as a driver of academic performance? Any ideas?
She then said that:
“The point being made is that “how” you teach these subjects has a profound effect on curiosity and overall learning.”
Bear with me as it might not immediately seem relevant but this discussion reminded me of a rather annoying AS politics essay question set last summer. It looked innocuous enough but many of our students flunked it. We had covered all the necessary material, the students had dutifully learnt the right stuff but they failed to see how their learning could be applied to the question. This is a particular issue for us with AS politics and leads to two big questions.
1. Why can’t my students see the relevance of their learning when the question is phrased in an unfamiliar way?
2. What can we do about this?
I have a good answer to question one. It is found in this brilliant article. Teaching question analysis will only take you so far. Our students did well overall but this question highlighted that they lacked broader knowledge and understanding of politics. That is not to say they did not understand what they had learnt, understanding is not all or nothing.
I don’t want to overstate the problem, our department is successful but I do want to build the best possible understanding. I could see that despite our efforts knowledge was sometimes narrowly grasped without enough understanding of the interconnections between concepts. This wasn’t because of a lack of focus on understanding. We just need more than 10 months with real novice learners especially as the course is very content heavy. Now, our students should have all been following politics actively outside of lessons. This should be the solution, a way for them to get up to speed but they frequently seemed to lack that degree of curiosity and personal motivation. They enjoyed lessons (well over half of each cohort go on to study politics at university) However, not enough news was being watched and while there was plenty of curiosity to read the sports section of the newspaper few were tucking into the political comment!
Milos’ tweet suggests the way to provoke curiosity was to change ‘how’ we taught. I presume she believes that a guided discovery or inquiry approach would stimulate curiosity. I largely disagree. I think in this case it was because we were expecting a discovery approach to work that there were problems. Our students, watching news they didn’t really understand and reading articles referencing countless issues they had no knowledge of, were understandably put off. In lessons we are always discussing relevant current events but our course is full and explaining one news story can take 15 minutes with new students.
I decided the solution was a new format for our Politics Society. Over many years I and colleagues have tried more student led or discussion formats. This year we would meet weekly in the lunch break, ‘encourage’ our year 12s especially, to attend and use the time purely to brief attendees on the last week in politics. Ultimately we would want the club to develop a discussion based format but initially our club would be very teacher led. The first sessions ended up being pure lecture as our students didn’t really ask questions and questioning them too much would turn the sessions into ordinary lessons. It seemed I had decided to encourage discussion through a club that was mainly me and my colleague lecturing! At this point we could have lost our nerve, organised some rather banal, ill informed debate or persuaded a few more able kids to lead sessions even though they were not very well informed themselves. However, my theory was that once students had access to understand more of the television news and the papers they would become increasingly enthusiastic and able to join in. This is because I believe curiosity and motivation blossom as you grasp more about interesting things and aren’t so much generic traits that can be inculcated. We can’t teach a generic ‘love of learning’, a sort of indiscriminate desire to find out everything and anything. You learn things and as you do so you often become more and more interested.
Would it work? Would enthusiasm grow or weaken as students were told more and more about current events?
Life isn’t a Disney film but I’m really happy with how it is going. The classroom is full every week. We have some regular attendees who don’t even study politics and some that had to be initially ‘encouraged’ to attend who have continued voluntarily. They like finding out stuff from us, asking us questions, having us explain, even in their own time. As our students have gained some real knowledge of events they have started to contribute and gradually there has been more discussion. Our year 13s certainly contribute more than the year 12s but that rather proves my point. The more novice the learner the more reliant they are on the teacher and the less they can meaningfully offer. A few times I have worried that a club of this sort should be student led but I’ve held my nerve and waited for our students to feel more confident they have some grasp of current events before expecting them to take the lead. Some of my year 13s were chatting about how much they are enjoying politics a few weeks ago. They explained that the more they have studied, the more interesting it has become. they have certainly gained increasing enjoyment from Politics Club and are much more engaged by current events than they were initially. One student, then another, asked me, as a favour, if they could run a Politics Club session. I grinned – broadly – of course they could. I thought back to their start in year 12. One of them probably only chose politics because she was good at history and both subjects were taught by the same teachers. She started with no special enthusiasm but now she is genuinely excited to talk politics with anyone interested.
I think most would agree that intellectual curiosity and thus motivation to learn are important but complex. It bothers me when I hear, for example, early years teachers,claiming that because activities are child led children will grow up more intellectually curious. There seems little basis for this claim. I don’t think discovery learning is effective but we all know of kids fired up by traditional and progressive teaching. I’ll plug away at helping my students gradually learn more of what is innately interesting about my subject. As long as they understand it I’ll not particularly worry about the way they encountered that information.