Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Cultivating Curiosity

Curiosity. We value the questions that drive learning, innovation, and creativity, which serve as the beginning and the desired outcome of education.

— Western Connecticut State University Core Value

This statement emerged during a three-year process of revising our mission, vision, and values statement, as part of the development of our strategic plan. It is my favorite part of the whole thing.  While nearly everything else speaks to the institution, this statement celebrates the very purpose of education.

But what next?  Can we make this value statement an action statement? Should we try to do so?

For those of us who decided to pursue advanced degrees, curiosity is likely second nature. We find our disciplines fascinating, and care enough about the contexts of our knowledge to pursue connections to other disciplines.  We certainly didn’t like everything we studied, but we enjoyed enough to develop inquiring minds.  As we moved into careers in higher education, many of us had to adjust to the realities of the classroom.  As it turns out, not everyone is passionate about our discipline and not everyone approaches learning with an interest in the broader context.  Quite the opposite appears to be true.

It is a kind of culture shock at the start.  We dive into teaching assuming that our passions will be shared by our students.  Yet, in nearly every class, there are students who simply want to pass the class.  Our passions are not intrinsically interesting to them.  Nor do they see education as interdisciplinary linkages.  It is more compartmentalized, with courses experienced in isolation, not connected to a whole.  This realization can make us despair and ask the silliest question of all, “Why aren’t they like us”?

Let’s start with the obvious.  Lots of them are like us.  We were the engaged students, in classrooms full of students who were less so. Those engaged students are in all of our classes, alongside those who are simply satisfying requirements. They are different from us because they grew up in another era, and we may need new teaching strategies, but they are still curious and seeking a meaningful educational experience.

As far as the compartmentalization of education, well that’s on us.  If we are not intentional in helping our students see the connections between their learning experiences and if we do not make clear that the undergraduate experience is something more than the sum of its parts, then it will be experienced as a disconnected list.  The extreme version of this was recently expressed to me by a student who was outraged that she had 30 more credits to complete for her degree, with no particular requirements in those credits. She had completed general education and her major and felt that we were simply collecting money for credits because there was no point to the rest of it.  I tried, and failed, to explain otherwise, but everything about her experience validated her assessment of the situation.

Then there is the career language.  Many (most) of our students come to us with goals that drive their educational decisions. They want careers and, if possible, some measure of financial security, that will make the investment in education worthwhile. Given the cost of education and the public discourse surrounding it, these are not unreasonable goals.

So, how do we support curiosity as a core value?  How do we cultivate the asking of questions?  Nothing short of a revolution is required.

We’ve been dabbling.  Professors have flipped classrooms, used clickers, developed applied learning opportunities. They’ve employed universal design, tried learning modules, and talked about badges and competency-based education.  All of this tells me something is shifting. But these experiments are random and experienced in isolation as students happen to encounter an adventurous professor.

Some of that randomness is good.  Education shouldn’t be cookie cutter and predictable. But we need something more than serendipity to engage our students in the kind of learning we love. This isn’t nostalgic impulse (why aren’t they like us), but a commitment to the power curiosity gives us to grow and develop as each new challenge and opportunity arises.  Our current structure is not organized to cultivate curiosity: It is organized for tests and  trivia contests.

I’m not sure what the end of the revolution should look like but I offer three guiding principles for the redesign.

Principal 1: Include students in the design of courses.  Instead of having a syllabus on day one, let’s bring a list of goals and content for students to shape and develop with us. This is very hard work for faculty, but consider the potential for engagement.  If students are asked to co-design the course,  they may be more invested in generating questions and following lines of inquiry. Perhaps we could also encourage them to consider why the topic is worth studying at all.

Principal 2: End all courses with a discussion of follow-up questions.  Make sure those questions are not just in the discipline of the specific course, but connect them to the many other places where questions about the subject might be asked and answered.

Principal 3: Make room for students to follow up on those questions.  This means that our degrees cannot be so over-structured that students have no room to follow a question into another discipline.

There is so much more to do, but these three ideas offer a start.  If we take these steps, perhaps we’ll be able to better answer the question of our value in terms that aren’t about returns on investment or career preparation.  Perhaps we can truly answer that the value of the undergraduate experience is the development of the habit of curiosity that empowers our students to create satisfying and productive lives.

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