Brain Chemistry, Curiosity and a Challenge

December 17, 2015
Jodi Posadas

Jodi Posadas

While visiting Longfellow New Tech Elementary School in Gary, IN a few weeks ago, a few colleagues and I witnessed a fifth grade class of students leap from their seats to present for us. These students were not expecting us to come into their room and to add to it, they had a sub… the perfect setting for what could have easily been a very chaotic environment.  But it was far from that.  This classroom was so excited about the learning that occurred within their last project that they quietly moved about the room, brought their displays off of shelves and proceeded to talk to us about all of the information they had gathered.  As we walked out of the classroom, one of my secondary colleagues asked, “when does that love of learning go away?”

It struck me. I know countless elementary teachers who want the best for their students. They want to make sure to give them basics. They want to help students master multiplication facts. And they want students to have fun learning.  I also know secondary teachers who want similar things for their students.  So what happens? I don’t think it has to do with the things teachers want for their students, but maybe the way we go about giving them what we think they need.

What is overlooked when it comes to student engagement and love for learning? Could it be that although you planned a great lesson, it gives  students all they need to know and doesn’t allow them time to search for anything on their own? If Einstein is quoted as saying- “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious”- wouldn’t a student’s passion for learning grow alongside curiosity and even inquiry?  Is curiosity, then, the missing link?

About a year ago, I read an article published by NPR.  In this article, Maanvi Singh connects us to a study by Neuron magazine suggesting the brain’s chemistry changes when we become curious, helping us to better learn and retain information.  Additionally, our brains retain boring information if framed with intriguing questions or ideas that pique our interest. Whoa. Think about all the ideas that could come about if learners were more curious prior to diving into a project.

So, it made me think— Why not build the learning and thinking in the classroom this way? With my own curiosity sparked, I searched for ideas. I came across this MindShift article that gives 10 tips to getting started with inquiry in the classroom.  After reading over their list, I brainstormed a few tangible ways to begin using inquiry and curiosity to drive the learning in a classroom. Try out one of these, or come up with some of your own!

  • To launch a project about the way things move, have students observe different objects in motion.  Have them record their observations in journals, then video or photograph evidence and discuss the findings with classmates. Have them wonder out loud about the things they recorded.  Encourage them to ask questions about what they saw, too.
  • Use an interactive number line like this to build number sense in your classroom. Allow student questioning to guide the learning experience and see what you come up with! Geoff (@emergentmath) gave me this idea and added a twist-  Use it with algebraic expressions like x, 2x and x-3 to amp up the cognitive demand.
  • To formatively assess student learning about sound, hand out a variety of instruments to students.  Ask students to draw the instrument and write about how it makes sound, what high and low pitch sounds like with this instrument and why they chose this instrument.  This type of assessment allows you to gather data as they play the instrument and determine the answers, think about high and low pitch and discuss why they chose this instrument.  With this idea, you can physically see their inquiry as they determine the answers to these questions.

Curiosity is more than a way to grab students’ attention. It is a sense of wonder and questioning, interest and discovery, creativity and creation in the world around us as learners and teachers, too. And the more we seek to find answers, the more questions we will have.

Here is a challenge:

Take some time over the break to allow curiosity to drive your own learning. Chase some passions. Be the lifelong learner you want your students to be. Use what you find and make a plan to allow inquiry to drive your students’ love of learning. Because really, the future belongs to the curious.

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