Keeping Curiosity at the Heart of Education Standards

Kit Hawkins wrote the following opinion column for The Oregonian on September 28:

The Common Core Standards are on the minds of many teachers, parents and policymakers as school opens this fall. There are those who believe this will be the reform that will turn American schools around, assuming that it is American schools that need turning rather than a culture that permits 22 percent of its children to live in poverty. There are those who fear evaluation of teachers using metrics associated with student tests aligned to these standards. Whatever one’s point of view, 45 of our 50 states have adopted these standards, and they have thus become a reality to which educators must respond.

The Anchor Standards in literacy are particularly powerful and surely foundational. But purely academic goals fail to incorporate central human aims that we must also hope to see in evidence in our children if they are to flourish. Among these aims: the ability to self-regulate, an attitude of curiosity, the penchant for exhibiting kindness toward others, the inclination to be a contributing member of society, the capacity to persist against difficult odds, the drive to frame and test solutions for problems. By starting at the level of these fundamental human aims, we might well avoid limiting the horizon of our thinking about what we strive to nourish in our students.

Yes, let us work together on sharing goals for enhancing our students’ capacities for rigorous thinking as readers, writers and mathematicians. But let us also work together on constructing schooling aims that are at once more critical and more enduring. Such aims have to do with habits and attitudes that persist when the names of the characters in the novel a student studied as a freshman disappear. These aims have to do with ways of thinking and being that continue long past skill with the quadratic equation.

In her article ”Children’s Need to Know: Curiosity in Schools” (Harvard Educational Review; Vol. 81, No. 4) Susan Engel explores one of the most critical of these attitudes for students as learners — that of curiosity, the posing of provocative questions and the having of wonderful ideas about how one might find answers. Engel has begun looking at how schools do and do not support the maintenance and development of student curiosity. With our focus on knowing and being able to answer testable questions, we too often forget to leave room not only for the questions students have but for the intellectual space in which they can pose them and pursue them fruitfully. Engel calls on us to model curiosity, to plan purposely for opportunities for students to pose their own questions, to track the progress of questioning in our classrooms, to assess the quality and even the quantity of curiosity in our students and, thereby, our success in fostering it.

As we discuss the Common Core Standards, let us remember to articulate and activate simultaneously the equally fundamental aims that schooling must undertake. As school starts this fall, let us keep curiosity at the core.

Kit Abel Hawkins is the director of the Arbor School of Arts & Sciences in Tualatin.