Student Curiosity Offered as Key Spice in Latest Reform Recipe

Educators have taken on standards, accountability plans and any number of reform measures in an effort to improve learning outcomes. Could the answer be as simple as sparking curiosity in students? That's the proposal offered in a whitepaper recently issued by McRel International, a nonprofit organization that works with school systems to improve student learning.

McRel President and CEO Bryan Goodwin lays out an argument that the reason why achievement levels remain stagnant in the United States isn't with the initiatives undertaken by educators so much as with the way they're handled as "outside-in" or "top-down" approaches.

"External solutions often consist of paint-by-numbers approaches that we expect educators to adopt with so-called 'fidelity of implementation,' even though their context may be very different from the one in which the program was originally developed," Goodwin stated in his whitepaper, "The Road Less Traveled: Changing Schools from the Inside Out." Teachers hit plateaus because they stop improving their knowledge or skills, he noted. Teachers serving as "coaches" often end up turning into "confederates of the central office tasked with ensuring proper compliance with the scripted program." And extrinsic rewards — "carrots and sticks" — tend to show "diminishing returns over time."

A better approach, he advised, is to put "student engagement, motivation and true problem-solving abilities at the heart of everything we do." The result, he insisted, would be curiosity, "a powerful driver for learning, exploring, questioning, critical thinking and creative problem-finding and solving." Just as importantly, he wrote, is that "it's not difficult to develop."

Among those who have put curiosity at the center of student learning, according to Goodwin, is University Park Campus School in Worcester, MA. There, teachers have "eschewed test preparation" as well as grades "and are focusing instead on asking students 'questions to spark their curiosity' and think deeply about their learning." The result, the report stated, is that students in low-income populations who enter the school in grades 7 and 8 two years behind on average are passing the state test by grade 11.

The paper offers a seven-step map for promoting curiosity as the foundation for reform:

  1. Developing a shared understanding about the "moral purpose" of schooling through stakeholder conversations. The goal is to develop "clarity around shared goals" for district success.
  2. Putting student curiosity, engagement and motivation at the center of learning rather than focusing on teacher performance.
  3. Building on bright spots in current practice and teacher strengths. For example, performance appraisals of teachers should be used, the report advised, to "support (not sort)" them by building on their strengths "and charting a course of professional growth."
  4. Developing school leaders as change agents and questioners, which will require principals to attain new skills.
  5. Failing "forward" with continual testing and improving through rapid cycles based on data.
  6. Rediscovering peer coaching, converting it from "top-down monitoring" to a forum for "'critical friend' feedback" that can help teachers move toward mastery.
  7. Shifting away from annual large-scale testing for every student every year to a mix of standardized tests and "sampling methods." The savings in time, Goodwin reported, can be applied to a "focus on performance assessments, which can be used on a large scale for accountability purposes."

"We loathe the constraints of our current reform paradigm," Goodwin observed, "yet underestimate our power to walk away from it, experiencing the freedom of a new, more engaging system of schooling."

The 16-page whitepaper can be downloaded with registration on the McREL Web site.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.