Many Kids Ask Fewer Questions When They Start School. Here's How Teachers Can Foster Their Curiosity
Boston public schools start the year remotely
A student raises her hand in her virtual classroom at Roxbury YMCA in Boston on September 21, 2020. Boston Public School students study remotely on the first day of school at Roxbury YMCA on Monday. Roxbury Y is one of nearly 100 programs across Boston that provide classroom space, while public schools are closed to more than 6,000 students so their parents can work and students can get help, supervision, and fun playing with other children . Photo credit - Photo by Suzanne Kreiter / The Boston Globe via Getty Images
I recently went to a shop in western Massachusetts where the staff were maskless. "No masks?" I asked. The young woman behind the counter made a face. "It's about nothing." "Nothing?" I said. "Do you know how many people have died so far?" "I don't care. It's just plain stupid," she said. It wasn't her ignorance that alarmed me. It was her disdain for information. Similar examples fill the paper. The COVID-19 pandemic has a gaping hole in it Uncovered our educational system by reminding us that too many adults are neglecting data, and we are nowhere near enough to convey the most important result of twelve years in a classroom: a thirst for knowledge.
It is human nature to rely on evidence to support one's own opinions and to suppress contributions that challenge those opinions. Researchers have referred to this common phenomenon as myside bias. But research also shows that education can help overcome this tendency. However, many current school practices are more likely to hinder the inclination and ability to seek out new information, assess its reliability, and use it for education rather than for promoting opinions. It doesn't have to be the case.
Infants are born with an ever-present and wild desire to absorb new information. When a series of familiar images is shown and then something new is shown, your entire system is on high alert: breathing, heartbeat, and skin moisture change, indicating that you noticed the surprise. What are you doing next? They pay attention and study the new material until it is known. This urge to explain the unexpected drives a large part of their daily behavior and explains the tremendous intellectual growth that people go through in their first few years of life. Though born quite incompetent compared to other mammals (who walk, play, and self-feed within hours or days of birth), by the age of three they learned how to speak and formulate concepts (something few, if at all other animals can). They have absorbed their family's customs and norms and close a tight circle. You will master the routines that govern daily life and master a number of clever tricks and strategies to attract, entertain, convince and deceive others.
By the age of three, they acquired another tool that propelled them forward: they learned to ask questions. Research shows that young children typically ask a question every two minutes. Many of these questions look for simple facts: the name of things, the time something will happen, or where an object or person is located. Those who ask what, when and where are the hand tools of asking. But when they were three years old, they bought the power tool: asking why and how things are the way they are. Children look for explanations for a variety of phenomena: why an ice cube melts in the sun, where Grandma goes when she walks, and how the family dog knows where to poop. Researchers describe this as epistemic curiosity, a need for understanding. It underlies the vast universe of knowledge that defines our species.
Yet schools, for the most part, rather than building on it, dampen this natural urge to find out. Research shows that schoolchildren are far less curious at home than they were a few months earlier. For example, the rate of questions asked when children are in school drops - from one question every two minutes to less than one question every two hours. Studies also show that examining children is very sensitive to adult behavior. Teachers can build on young children's thirst for knowledge and help them find information more effectively and persistently.
First, students need ample opportunity to pursue individual interests, no matter how strange they may be. For some it will be insects, for others it will be building structures, exploring the nature of death, or considering incarnations of infinity. Mind you, such endeavors have little to do with the traditional projects that teachers often offer as a sweetener for "more essential" learning. Instead, solving real puzzles and acquiring expertise in areas that fascinate the learner would be the focus of the curriculum. Also, to encourage investigation, it needs teachers who have a genuine interest in pondering and comforting with uncertainty about the unknown.
Next, children need help learning how to assess the reliability of certain facts they have gathered. Thirst for knowledge should turn into thirst for knowledge. Researchers have shown that three-year-old children use two methods of trusting what adults tell them: how emotionally connected they are and how accurate the adult was before. As children get older, they trust less social and emotional ties and place more emphasis on the previous accuracy of the source. They have the right instincts, but they need help to maintain and improve that instinct as they get older.
What criteria could children learn to judge the reliability of material (whether in books, online, or from people around them)? You should learn to seek confirmation that the material is expertly based - scientists know more about the transmission of infection than others, psychologists are likely to know more about how people adopt new habits, and farmers are good sources of information about herding livestock . Students should learn to trust an expert more than their cousin.
You should also look for consensus. Although large groups routinely lead us wildly astray (think thalidomide here), people generally correct one another. This is one of the reasons Wikipedia is a pretty good source of information. However, the consensus among experts is even better. Students can discuss how widespread a collection of facts is and who can agree on that collection.
Finally, students can spend time discussing motivated thinking. Someone who benefits from a particular point of view may be less trustworthy than someone who has little interest in the subject. For example, students should be taught how blind review works in scientific journals and why external media guards are helpful. Here, primary source material in the classroom is far more useful than textbooks, which by definition bury the source's perspective. Achievement First, a network of schools in NYC encourages students to reconsider the considerations behind the material they read and ask, “What did the author gain?” That concern should become a central feature of high school curricula in many subjects .
While none of these strategies are foolproof, taken together they would help steer students in the right direction. Perhaps more importantly, by emphasizing activities that strengthen these skills, we encourage young people to place great emphasis on reliable information. Children are born with the tools and the urge to collect and evaluate data. Schools should build on these tendencies, not ignore or thwart them. An appetite for accurate knowledge is vital when the time comes to take part in the world outside of school, whether you are deciding to get a vaccination or assessing the validity of a choice.
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