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Freedom to Learn: How to spark curiosity

This is the second in the 2-part blog post on providing free spaces for young people to learn. I encourage you to click here and read part one about reflections on the unschooling movement and potential drawbacks of this model in the digital age.


School has changed. It has become apparent with the growth in online learning programmes that the role of teacher in learning has fundamentally shifted. The shift from teachers being the gatekeepers of knowledge to facilitators of learning has been a hallmark of 21st-century education literature. Teachers are no longer ‘founts of knowledge’ but rather guides. King (1993) describes this shift from ‘sage on the stage’, an instructor whose philosophy is that knowledge is ‘given’ to students, to a ‘guide on the side’, a facilitator who supports the discovery of knowledge. It is not surprising then that Bregman (2020) advocates for “learning supported by coaches and play leaders”.


So, what does it look like to be a learning coach? A repositioning of the teacher’s role begins with a fundamental shift in practice. Loewenstein (1998), in his work The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation, argues that learning happens through involuntary curiosity. He defines this as arising "...spontaneously as a result of an unintentional exposure to a curiosity-inducing stimuli" (p. 91). The reality of classroom teaching is that it is a balancing act, one in which we we aim to bring a curriculum alive, whilst valuing student individual interests and creating the "curiosity-inducing stimuli" described above. That is the job of educators who want to explore the freedom of teaching and learning spaces that look like Agora. They are in the classroom to spark curiosity.

So, how do you do this?


Start with questions

As we’ve developed our social science curriculum at our kura, I’ve been encouraged to start with questions as opposed to statements. Asking questions puts us in the shoes of our learners. I’ve written previously about how repositioning ourselves as the learner means we are more willing to embrace that knowledge is fluid, dynamic and not one-size-fits-all.


We’re obsessed with the answers. In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham notes that we are “so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question.” Instead of deciding what you information you will give/impart to students, start with a question that prompts discovery. Less learning outcome and more learning inquiry. Questions stimulate curiosity.

Priming the pump

George Loewenstein (1998) acknowledges that curiosity requires some initial knowledge. Sparking curiosity is like opening doors for students, doors to new worlds of information. It is impossible for students to be curious about something they know absolutely nothing about. Exposure to new information, however small, can pique the curiosity of learners, leading to them wanting to know more. The process of gaining knowledge results in further curiosity. The more you know, the more you want to know. Loewenstein suggests beginning this process by “priming the pump” with intriguing but incomplete information.


You might do this through a series of images left for students to ponder or questions. You may provide reading materials that require students to find out more information. Open ended, incomplete learning prompts are the scaffolded door teachers open to ignite curious young minds.


Building collaborative learning spaces

One of the reasons the concept of grade levels feels foreign to tangata whenua is that in Te Ao Maori knowledge is not static. It is fluid and dialogic. I’ve written previously about how the Eurocentric view of knowledge as something stored solely in one’s mind, sits at odds with the notion of shared wisdom. When we view knowledge as a communal practice, rather than an individual pursuit, we begin to view knowledge as being a verb rather than a noun, more energy-like than matter-like, something that you act upon. (Bolstad et al, 2012)


So, what does this mean in terms of prompting curiosity? It means that priming the pump does not have to be based purely in written or visual resources but rather can be facilitated through student conversations across levels. While we may not have the ability to shift school design, we do have the agency to scaffold learning opportunities across levels, through small steps that encourage students to share in learning, as Tuakana-teina.


Ultimately, what Bregman & Holt has caused me to wonder is what learning restrictions are actually imposed by schools and educators, as opposed to the curriculum? How often do we blame the systems and structures for a lack of creativity and innovation? How often do we leave these kind of learning environments for new or ‘innovative’ schools? Again, we are confronted with the unhelpful binary of traditional vs progressive. Ultimately, in order to realise the benefits of that Agora model of schooling, we need to be creating free teaching and learning spaces within traditional contexts. Spaces where educators spark curiosity. Where students can be “left to their own devices, in a community bringing together all ages and abilities, supported by coaches and play leaders”.


References: Bregman, R. (2020). Humankind. Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. King, A. (1993) From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. College Teaching, Vol. 41, No. 1. 30-35

Loewenstein, George. (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin. 116. 75-98.

R Bolstad & J Gilbert with S McDowall, A Bull, S Boyd & R Hipkins. (2012). Supporting future-oriented learning and teaching: A New Zealand perspective. New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Willingham, D. T. (2010). Why don't students like school?: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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