What Does A Bike, An Amish Buggy, And Curiosity Have In Common?
I grew up in a small town in Northern Indiana, which is what some refer to as “Amish Country.” The Amish choose to lead a simple lifestyle which includes traveling by horse and buggy rather than car. I remember one Saturday hopping on my bike on another adventure with my friends, riding down a steep hill near my house in the country. As we were picking up speed, I looked back to respond to a joke one of my friends made, when my bike (and body) stopped violently as I crashed into the back of a buggy. Between the bewilderment of the Amish couple and the uproarious laughter of my friends, I learned a lesson that day about the law of physics.
Through this unusual and humorous encounter, and many other experiences, seeds were planted that motivated me to explore the world – beyond the classroom, and when my career took me into youth work, I knew that what I wanted expose youth to learning experiences that sparked curiosity and made learning relevant.
Constructivism was embraced by John Dewy, educational reformer, and it is the theory that says learners construct knowledge rather than just passively take in information. As people experience the world and reflect upon those experiences, they build their own representations and incorporate new information into their pre-existing knowledge (schemas). What this means, is that if every day is approached with an attitude of curiosity and wonder, people can co-create their own learning journey.
It may seem obvious that students don’t get more curious by filling out a curiosity worksheet. They get curious by asking questions and doing things that incite wonder, push comfort zones, and invite experimentation. Fred Rogers was criticized that the neighborhood he created lacked educational value as it was just children’s games rather than numbers, letters, fractions, and spelling. But Fred responded, “I would rather give (children) the tools for learning. If we give them the tools, they’ll want to learn the facts. More importantly, they’ll use the facts to build and not destroy.”
The chosen venue for providing these tools are school systems. On average, students spend over 1000 hours annually in classroom settings intended to set them on a course for a successful learning journey. With the incredible investment of time, money, and politicking, it begs the question, “How successful are we at engaging students and growing their motivation and curiosity needed to activate their learning in the real world?”
Based on the Glossary of Education Reform, “Engagement refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught” We must realize that when we’re asking students to give us their attention, we are asking for something of inherent value. They have an incredible number of things and people vying for it!
Research points to the fact that we are not doing well in this area. In a Gallup survey of nearly one million students in 2015, they found that 75% of students in 5th grade reported feeling engaged. By grade 11, this dropped dramatically to only 32%. In another study it was reported 85%classrooms that engaged less than 50% of students.
As depressing as all of this sounds, there are ways to open space for curiosity to bloom. Students are like plants – they need the right environment in order to grow. Dewey said, “If curiosity isn’t nurtured, it tends to become transitory and die out, or wane in intensity.” According to one study sited by Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski in, When You Wonder You’re Learning: Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids, a surprising benefit happened when students got curious. “When participants were highly curious about the information in front of them, they more easily learned other information, even when it was unrelated. Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and return any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it.”
Curiosity has been described as the feeling we get when experience the gap between something we know and something we want to know more about. It is crucial that we create learning environments that invite students into this gap if we truly want to turn the tide from disenfranchisement and apathy to engagement and curiosity.
As mentors, educators, youth workers, parents, and fellow humans on our own learning journeys, we have opportunities every day to engage with students in curiosity, exploration, creativity, and risk-taking. They need to see us learning in front of them. Which means we may at times run into an Amish buggy with a bicycle.