Guest Post

Guest Post, Jessica Sierk: Giving Students Freedom, Reinvigorating Their Curiosity

I am excited to introduce a guest post by Jessica SierkAssociate Professor of Education and NY6 Academic Leadership Fellow. If you are interested in writing a guest post for the blog, please find more information about CITA’s scholarship of teaching grant here.

In this past year of experimenting with labor-based contract grading, I’ve done a lot of thinking about why I’m so intrigued by this untraditional grading ecology. It dates to thoughts I had when I left K-12 education and went back to grad school in 2012. In my very first class for my PhD program, I wrote about the idea of currere and the beauty of soulful classroom moments. In short, I was grappling with how to get students back to the heart of learning after three years of focusing on preparing them for state tests. This year, on the heels of receiving tenure, I once again reached a moment in my teaching career where I needed to pause and reestablish why I teach. Through a lot of reflection (in part thanks to Erin McCarthy’s coaching), I realized that one of my core values is curiosity. But how was this showing up in my teaching? I’m not sure it was always as apparent to students as I wanted it to be.

I realized that I was always rushing from one topic to the next. I was socialized in my first years as an educator to move at warp speed toward “the goal,” and even though I was now setting the goal, the warp speed pace seemed to always reemerge in my classrooms. I decided to do something risky; I cut the number of readings on my syllabus in half! I narrowed my list of articles down to the core concepts I wanted students to contemplate and made a commitment to help them reengage their curiosity. But I acknowledge that curiosity is something that many of our students have lost. Just as I was socialized as a teacher toward the end goal of a state test, so too have they been socialized as students to only strive for that one right answer. I was going to have to reteach them how to be curious.

Curiosity is evident in childhood. In fact, Harvard Associate Professor of Learning Sciences Elizabeth Bonawitz says that curiosity is innate in all humans. We lose it over time due to the positive reinforcement of getting the “correct answer” and punishment when we go off on tangents. We learn to ask, “Will this be on the test?” and begin to only care about the narrowly prescribed list of facts we need to be able to regurgitate on a bubble sheet. Many schooling environments operantly condition us not to be curious. It stands to reason then, that we can also operantly condition ourselves and our students to be curious once again. But how?

Some people likely got nervous when I suggested cutting the amount of reading in half. Won’t that reduce the course’s rigor? But that was just to make room for student curiosity – because curiosity requires space. So now, let’s talk about how to infuse curiosity into the space created by that risky move. I require students to complete entrance reflections before each class. This ensures that they have sufficiently engaged with the assigned material and are ready for our class discussions. On days where a reading I selected was due, the entrance reflections consisted of three questions: 

  • What intention did you set at the beginning of reading? For example, you may want to extend what you already KNOW about the topic based on your preview of the text. Or, you may want to learn something specific about the topic after you preview the text (50 words).
  • After reading the text, what did you learn? Type your reflection (150 words) here. For example, you can share your main takeaways, tell why you think this piece of text is important, describe why you disagree with this text, share a connecting anecdote, etc.
  • How valuable was this reading to your growing understanding of [fill in subject of class]?
    • Not valuable at all (e.g., I didn’t learn anything from it.)
    • Slightly valuable (e.g., I learned at least one new thing.)
    • Moderately valuable (e.g., I learned a handful of new things.) 
    • Valuable (e.g., I’m really glad I got to read this.)
    • Extremely valuable (e.g., It really blew my mind, in a good way!)

Already, this prompts curiosity through its inspiration from a KWL chart. Setting an intention for reading helps remind students that what they want to learn is important. While I’ve purposefully selected this reading, they still get a say in what they take away from it and this can set the course for part of our class discussion. 

What happens next is where curiosity really ramps up. The next class, there is no predetermined reading assigned. Instead, the entrance reflection prompts students to extend their learning by answering these two questions:

  • After reading the text and discussing it in class, what do you still want to learn? What was unclear that you need clarification on? What was interesting that you would like to further explore? (50 words)
  • What did you learn from the sources you found? Summarize in 100 words.

It puts students and their interests in the driver’s seat. However, students need a road map to effectively engage with these two questions. The questions themselves aren’t enough to effectively promote curiosity. 

In the assignment sheet for the extending entrance reflections (which links to this Prezi), I ask students to do a free-write about our class discussion of the reading. I have them to reflect on what they contributed to the discussion, how others responded to their contributions, what interesting points their classmates made, and what they’re thinking about differently as a result. After that free-write, they can answer the first question, effectively setting a curiosity goal – what are they curious about? To answer the second question, they must do some digging. I encourage them to find sources that are accurate, inclusive, and intersectional. What they learn from this exploration becomes the foundation of our next class discussion. 

Anecdotally, I can say that this has helped students feel more comfortable with curiosity. It essentially gives them permission to be curious and go off the beaten path. I’ve had students say that they appreciate being given “credit” for exploring beyond the assigned readings and that, in other classes, they usually have questions that they don’t explore due to it not being a requirement of the class. What I’m hoping is that this has a spillover effect to their other classes. That they begin to recognize that the joy of learning is in having questions and seeking answers (that prompt further questioning). This type of inquiry cycle is where I have found the joy in my own learning, and I’ve made it my mission to reinvigorate students’ love of learning by making this cycle a required part of my classes. Beyond the anecdote, I will soon have data to show if, how, and why this is working for students. Stay tuned for more!