Stay Curious: In Celebration of "Madness"

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My children may be past the age of trick-or-treating, but Halloween is still celebrated with gusto at our house. Vampires, princesses, and ghosts make their way through our smoke machine, ringing the doorbell throughout the evening. I make them linger a few seconds after they grab their candy so I can fully admire their costumes. This year, I was thrilled to see a “mad scientist” at our door; a first! She had a poof of untamed wild hair, a white lab coat, and taped-up glasses.

And, it got me thinking about Strategy #2: Stay Curious.

What is the mad scientist archetype after all than the most comically curious person alive?!

A mad scientist is fueled by insatiable curiosity, embodying our need-to-know and our need-to-solve. But was it really ‘science’ that fueled this madness? Does it have to be chemistry and astrophysics that drives people to abandon their hygiene and spend all day researching, experimenting, and discovering? I don’t think so. I’ve known mathematicians, lawyers, bakers, poets, doctors, archeologists, entrepreneurs, parents, gardeners, artists, and historians indulging this type of “mad” curiosity.

It’s the madness, not the science that counts.

Which then led me to think about teaching. How do we keep this madness alive when we’ve taught the same lessons year after year? How do we keep it alive when we already know ‘the answer’ or the results? How do we retain a disposition of ‘mad’ curiosity when we’re stressed out and racing to cover curriculum?

First, take a deep, cleansing breath. Then, read on.

1) Say ‘Yes’ to your students’ ideas

Mathematicians, Dan Finkel and Katherine Cook, started Math for Love to help restore our love for the beauty and fun in learning math. In Finkel’s must-see TED talk, he suggests that we say “yes” to students’ ideas, even when these ideas may be wrong. Saying “yes,” he emphasizes, isn’t the same as saying “you’re right.” When we say yes, we ask students to think critically, to take some risks, and to involve others in the discussion. We also model a disposition of curiosity. Instead of being annoyed by a student’s wrong answer, how about being curious about how they arrived there?

According to Finkel and Cook, “To have your idea dismissed out of hand is disempowering. Having accepted, studied, and disproven is a mark of respect. It’s also far more convincing to be shown you’re wrong by your peers than told you’re wrong by the teacher.”

So, how can you respond with curiosity when a student gets it wrong? Here are some ways to say “yes” without saying “you’re right”:

“Tell us more.”

“Show us how you got there.”

“What do the rest of you think about this?”

“How do you know that?”

“How could you prove that?”

2) Wonder meta-cognitively

Maybe the content isn’t what you focus your madness on. Instead, your curiosity can focus on the learning itself. According to Child Mind Institute, “[Metacognition] is the running conversation we have in our heads, mentally sounding ourselves out and making plans. Training kids to use it proactively to overcome obstacles, it turns out, can be a powerful tool.”

Stop the lesson periodically and ask your students:

“How might I teach or explain this differently?”

“What is most frustrating for you in this work?”

“How did you approach this problem?”

“Is there something a classmate said that made you change your mind or alter your thinking?”

Not only can you get students to think about their own learning, you can also bring your students in on your pedagogy once in awhile. Let them try teaching the material once they’ve got a handle on it. Ask them to develop and lead their own mini-lessons and evaluate one another’s approaches. Demonstrate your passionate madness for the complexity of teaching.

3) Learn alongside

Have you ever learned something new in front of your students? What are you curious about? Is there something you are still curious about, even though you already know a whole heck of a lot about it? Learning in the moment, alongside our students, requires some vulnerability; you’re not the expert anymore. However, it can be extremely liberating for students to watch role models learn and collaborate, not just teach and lead.

Take a few minutes each day or week to learn something new with (or from) your students. Maybe you all try juggling, engage in Chinese eye exercises, or puzzle through geometry problems.

Our own curiosity is modeled every day through our words, expressions, and actions. When our students see that our own curiosity is sparked, theirs is sparked as well.

What is working for you? How do you stay curious in your work? Share in the Comments box below.