I’ve always been a curious person. Most of the time that has served me well, though when I was young, it occasionally led me into trouble. Observing the insects in the yard was interesting. Exploring the plants in the nearby woods was problematic, when some of them turned out to be poison oak. The only times I remember being “in trouble” in school stemmed from being curious about the piano (which no one was to play) and shelved books we weren’t to read yet. Now, as an older and hopefully-wiser person, I’m more cautious about unknown plants but still curious. I love traveling to new places. That curiosity also has been helpful while stuck at home in pandemic mode. Among other things, I’ve been curious about how to bake things like bagels and English muffins, which has made my spouse very happy. All of this has given special meaning to the next Modeli habit of innovators: Stay curious.
As a reminder, for the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the social/emotional elements of creativity—the attitudes and habits of mind we must support if we hope to help our students develop their creativity. I started my explorations with Modeli, a model of innovation from The Henry Ford museum. Unlike many models of design thinking, Model i includes both cognitive and affective skills needed for innovation. The attitudes or habits of mind proposed in Model i as essential for innovation are:
Curiosity is important enough that I think about it a lot. Today I’ve been reflecting on a Harvard Business Review article titled “The Business Case for Curiosity,” and how it is relevant to schools of both the in-person and virtual varieties. At the beginning of the article, author Francesco Gina observes, “[A]lthough leaders might say they treasure inquisitive minds, in fact most stifle curiosity, fearing it will increase risk and inefficiency.” In fact, the opposite is true. Even in work environments that seem to offer few opportunities for creativity, for example call centers, curiosity is associated with better outcomes. I suspect a similar dynamic happens in many schools. While most educators like the idea of curiosity, when faced with actual curiosity that leads a lesson in an unexpected direction or resists the response anticipated by a planned lesson script, we aren’t always thrilled. And yet, we know that when learners are curious about the things being studied, they learn more.
Gina offers five suggestions for supporting creativity in the workplace. I’m fascinated by how applicable they can be to schools. The first suggestion, “Hire for creativity” has no parallel in schools. While managers usually have options about who enters their workplace, public schools must serve all who enter our doors. But her next four suggestions make good sense in schools as well as businesses.
Model inquisitiveness. It is important that teachers model questioning behavior and genuine curiosity. This is particularly essential in schools, where most of the questions that teachers ask children are checks for understanding rather than genuine questions. The students are well aware that the teacher knows the correct answer. It is helpful to explain the difference between a check for understanding and questions teachers are curious about themselves. Interestingly, helping workers understand that management doesn’t know all the answers is also essential in creative businesses. Gina cites the example of Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, who made a point of talking about times Pixar made bad choices in order to emphasize the need for fresh questions and ideas.
Emphasize learning goals. This suggestion surprised me. I am not accustomed to thinking about businesses as learning environments. Schools and businesses, it seems, both have problems when they focus on performance goals such as test scores, points, or prizes. Focusing on mastering new skills and gaining understanding leads to better outcomes in both environments.
Let employees explore and broaden their interests. In businesses, this might mean structuring the environment so that employees interact with people outside their immediate team or providing training opportunities. In schools, it means we remember that deep learning happens when students learn material they care about and that is relevant to their lives. Of course, we can and should help students see the relevance of our assigned curriculum, but is it really so outrageous to think that students’ interests might have a place in their school day? Many years ago, I interviewed a group of eighth grade students and asked them to describe a time in school when they had a chance to learn about something they chose to study. Not one student could remember a topic choice more meaningful than which Greek god or which organ of the human body they chose for those assigned topics. We can do better than that.
Have “Why?” “What if?” and “How might we. . . ?” days. In business, these days are set aside as special opportunities to ask questions. In school, I would hope every day would be a “Why?” “What if?” or “How might we….?” Day. Very few things we teach in school can have the lasting impact of learning to ask good questions. I’ve written a whole series of blogs on students as questioners, so if you are interested in more details, just use the search function to explore. In these COVID times, when the world seems upside down, giving students the change to ask questions and feel some sense of control over a portion of their learning seems particularly relevant. At least it is something I want to think more about. And be curious.