My Whole Love of Learning Was Crushed …
(So Here is How it is Reclaimed)
Hey, students, what have you done that is pretty cool lately? Did you do it at school, or are you really you when you leave school?
What is your real motivation in school or life in general? What drives you? When you work hard, why are you working hard? Do you know?
And you teachers and parents: How do you define the “success” of your students? What really impresses you, moves you? What do you compliment, or reward?
Once our students get to the heart of their own motivations, they can be free to be what our world needs of them. How can we get to that heart?
Recently we were approached by a super-bright, kind-hearted student who had been attending another, prominent school. “But you have everything,” we thought—why wouldn’t that school be a breeze for her?
“My whole love of learning was crushed,” she explained. They valued her as a high-performance machine, focused on compliance, not curiosity. It was all about everyone else’s expectations. Extrinsically motivated people can’t really self-actualize, might never find what they best have to offer the world. They may not be trustworthy, either. This we know: many students find that their schools are terrible at helping them find their true passions and unique places in the world. Many of our kids feel trapped into narrow definitions of success and pointless limits on their personal freedom.
I know of no greater role for our school right now than in giving a student like this space to reclaim her creativity and spirit. How can we do that?
Why are we doing a particular thing a particular way? This is the question changemakers ask. Teachers and school leaders: Have you thought about why classes are set up as they are? In our great nation, your students sure aren’t developing curiosity. How can we develop kids who are searchers, courageous seekers of what the world needs of them? What would those classes look like? And why isn’t this question even seriously addressed before we talk about the academic units kids “need?”
Teachers: What have your students done that is pretty cool lately. What inspires them? What if that were a part of the curriculum? Could it be? …
The American journalist Warren Berger went into top organizations and met hundreds of scientists, artists, business leaders, engineers, filmmakers, educators, designers, social entrepreneurs, etc… all over the country, and he found that one thing great changemakers have in common is that they are exceptionally good at asking questions. I know that to be true of all the great teachers I have experienced in life. I hope you all will continue reading so I can make the connection between this—asking questions—and motivation … because we are not making this connection in schools and it is critical.
Questioning is not taught, honored, or modelled very well at schools. We all revere the Socratic Method as the most time-worn method for developing clear student thinking, clear minds. Einstein considered curiosity as holy: the open mind, the child’s mind. How are we doing with that?
The average 4-year old girl asks around 390 questions a day (mainly to her mom) and it drops down to approximately what, maybe one, by teen age. As our teens feel increasingly less power and space for personal expression in our schools, their anxiety grows and they grow mired more deeply in the teenage, techno info-swamp, the social distraction and distortion, and settled in chairs all day at school, judged by tests and ranks that mean little to them spiritually. Research shows how intellectual curiosity is less welcome in the classroom, taken by teachers as non-constructive impulsivity (except in our more self-directed or Socratic classes) . What you are curious about is not an issue, obviously not sacred.
As our teens feel increasingly less power and space for personal expression in our schools, their anxiety grows.
As our teens feel increasingly less power and space for personal expression in our schools, their anxiety grows. Curiosity is a core value at The Grauer School, but we almost never see it turn up as a whole-school value elsewhere. Why not? Independent schools, like The Grauer School, tend to have greater emphasis on knowing and valuing each child, and so they are in a good position to sensitively and effectively tap into teen curiosity. Schools that want to set up to breed more curiosity might try some of these emphases, most of which have been done at Grauer:
- Create spaces of silence for individuals or classes.
- Offer some uninterrupted times for “creative flow” without a bell ringing.
- Encourage teachers to take the classes on walks-- students return in a more creative frame of mind. (You would be shocked to learn how many schools will not even allow teachers to leave the classroom with students. You might be shocked by how many teachers do not know what to do with students unless they are in chairs.)
- Build in nature breaks or “digital sabbaticals,” so students can escape hyper-stimulation of the digital world for blocks of time.
- Evaluate students just as much on curiosity as on any major subject area.
- Start classes with soft baroque music or ocean waves sounds in the background.
- Make it a point to have one on one conversations with every student over the course of a week or two—find out “how it’s going.”
Without attention to the curiosity of our students, they tend to give up, even if they still play the game, extrinsically motivated. Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and innovation professor, Hal Gregersen found the main reason kids give up is something few teachers and parents would guess. They give up expressing curiosity because we don’t understand their questions –we just think we do.
We’re not really listening. Why? Because the kids are oftentimes not the real agenda, the curriculum is, the test is, the college placement is, the parent/teacher conceptions of what the child ‘should” do or “should” be, the end product, all of those are the agenda. Listening for the real concerns of our kids is often a digression.
This is no surprise. Sir Ken Robinson launched a TED Talk in 2015 called “How Schools Kill Creativity,” and it became the most viewed TED in history. In the four years since that Talk, things are getting worse. I know, because I correspond with parents and teachers all over the country and hear or read their stories … and it is being documented in every relevant publication I see.
I haven’t seen a lot of articles these days about the drop off of anxiety, the epidemic of student joy, the enthrallment with schools as they lift the spirits of our youth. Have you?
Socratic teachers, of course, believe their role is to get students to attain clear thought through insightful questioning. But teachers today don’t question all that much. It’s inefficient. It gives away their control of the lesson. It’s inconvenient as we march through the standard curriculum. It holds up progress toward the prescribed curriculum. It’s not on the test.
Eventually, the curriculum becomes much more about what the standards say you “need” to be tested on than what students are drawn to pursue. “Is that gunna be on the test?” But …what if curiosity were the curriculum?
What if curiosity were the curriculum?
Naturally student passions cannot be the whole curriculum—there is a body of powerful knowledge we are charged with passing down, a culture to pass along. So, balance is the thing. Let us all consider a true balancing of passing along a known knowledge base with time spent in the pursuit of student curiosity.
Kids stop asking questions unless they are in an environment where exploring and experimenting is the culture and the point—and this does not describe school for most kids.  As though the obvious were a revelation, researchers Joan Dabrowski and Tanji Reed Marshall make the following finding in their paper from The Education Trust: “For students to thrive and achieve at high levels, they must be interested and emotionally invested in their learning.” What kind of society needs big, national research studies to “discover” that students should be interested in things to learn well! And why isn’t “discovery” the curriculum? Where are the high stakes tests that measure “student discovery” and pursuit? Why aren’t schools and colleges ranked based upon the curiosity of their students?
I’m not going to go into what school and colleges are actually ranked on, since I already want to scream. Besides, as educators, our task is to plan out a great education. We have to start our planning with an existing reality and THIS—anemic curiosity-- is an existing reality (right there along with anxiety).
The increase in “academic rigor” as we know it and rank is proportional to the decline of curiosity for kids, according to many who study and observe it, famously Allison Gopnik, Berkeley psychology professor. She says that when we start teaching too much predetermined content, we cut off the student paths of inquiry. From all this, I propose and am attempting to advance a philosophy I know to be healthy: the healthy curriculum is a balance: we balance the genuine honoring of student curiosity with the passing along of a culture. The golden balance.
A 2013 Gallup survey showed that, as kids stop questioning, they simultaneously become less engaged in school—sadly, 76% of elementary school kids are engaged in school and it gradually drops down to 44% by high school according to Gallup.
Question: What can we do to develop students and teachers who are happy, healthy, individualistic, far sighted, connected, courageous? And, now, here is the “real” question: Why isn’t that the curriculum?
And: What can each of us do to let go, even a little, of the existing, out of balance reality? New thought and new promise may be on the horizon. A rising tide of people and organizations are joining our efforts to let go of the standard, narrow measures of school success. In 2021, the OECD, which administers the Programme for International Assessment (PISA), a math, science, and reading test given every three years to half a million 15-year-olds around the world, will add a test of creative skills. For many years we were in the dark with respect to comparing various school systems around the world. We have that comparison now through the PISA, but all it has done so far is drive reductionist, narrow, non-creative concepts of what school outcomes can be—concepts that are quick and easy to measure. It is time to measure what matters before jumping to further conclusions about which national systems are “superior.” Maybe the addition of the creativity component to PISA is a step.
There is other good action and cause for optimism. The nationwide Panorama test is growing like a movement in the US, asking students questions about socio-emotional learning at school, rather than just the standard measures. The growing Mastery Transcript Consortium is attempting to develop high school transcripts that express the “whole” of student development, not just grades in the standard classes. The High School Survey of Students Engagement, also nationwide, breaks down student engagement into many components schools can address. Real, student-centered initiatives like these could end up constituting a movement or course correction towards the kind of balanced, healthy education that breeds curiosity and intrinsic motivation, and that does not exhaust us and our children.
Intrinsic motivation “occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards.” We enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials—not fundamentally to please someone or meet their requirements.
Grauer School is unusual because students set their own mastery learning levels—and so students learn that they can determine the value of each subject for themselves—they can “find” themselves if we let them. With conviction and courage, we can honor the intrinsic motivation of our students rather than the imposed, external “shoulds” that rob them of the chance of finding that “north star.” But it took many years to refine this ideal program and larger schools with larger, more siloed faculties would not realistically be able to achieve a true mastery learning program.
I close with a scenario: A New England senior has 1200 SAT scores, 4.4 GPA, great references, and is rejected from New York University. So many questions: Are they a failure? Has their school failed them? Was acceptance in this university a legitimate life purpose over the past four years? What about a payoff? What does the world need of this student now? And this question: what do we tell their distraught parents who are sure we have all failed?
Forming an identify is a big job and a serious one that teens need to get done right. Done right, it also can be incredibly inspirational and engaging, especially when we connect our daily actions to our true values and largest life purposes. It is time to explode narrow conceptions of life purpose and success for our trapped, controlled students, by far the most anxious, chair-bound, sleep-deprived, and depressed generation in American history--none of these conditions occur in natural environments: we cause them! It is time to cast “education” as a freeing experience rather than a controlling one. Failing to do this is the only failure. This is on us. Ask a student what they have done that is really pretty cool lately, and see if we can really listen, see if their willingness to share that is still around, see if we can really understand. This is the path to igniting curiosity and motivation.
 10 Strategies To Promote Curiosity In Learning, Terry Heick.
 Warren Berger. A More Beautiful Question.
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