One idea: Cultivating curiosity

Published by Lori Pickert on March 11, 2009 at 02:53 PM


Two groups of college students, one on the East Coast and one on the West, were given the exact same paper and instructed to read it attentively because they’d be tested afterward. There was one difference: the group on the East Coast was told that the information in the paper might not be true. That group ended up scoring significantly higher on the test than the other group. Why? Because uncertainty engages the mind. — Jay Cross and Clark Quinn, The Value of Learning About Learning

“The thing about project-based learning (the way we do it) is that you can’t really plan ahead. You have to think on your feet and react to things happening today. Once things are under way, you can look ahead a bit, but you never know if you are correctly anticipating where the project is going to go.

It’s more like being a riverboat captain in 1825 than a subway conductor in 2007.

Looking ahead, you attempt to “read” the river, see if you can figure out where the deepest, most fruitful channels lay, try to anticipate what’s around the next bend. But there’s always an element of unpredictability.” — Camp Creek Blog: Projects Are Fun

“In a classroom that fosters curiosity, many different materials are arranged to provoke an element of surprise. … The classroom environment should have about it a quality of expecting the unexpected. This kind of environment draws children and adults in, intrigues them, and sets them off on a journey of investigation.” — Authentic Childhood: Exploring Reggio Emilia in the Classroom

“We talked about how we wanted students to interact with our classroom. We didn’t want them to come in and know every day that the block area contained this and the art studio had that. We wanted them to come in every day and not know what they might find. This, we felt, would encourage them to see their classroom as a dynamic, ever-evolving environment where anything could happen. In turn, we felt being on their toes all the time would help encourage habits of curiosity and interest.

Rather than put every material out on the first day of school, we added things throughout the year. Rather than announcing any new addition as a special treat and drawing attention to it (which creates the additional problem of 15 children wanting to use it at once), we simply added things and let them be discovered. Then the children told each other and showed each other.” — Camp Creek Blog: Curriculum of Curiosity


Do your children know what to expect from you, from their week, from their surroundings? Do you introduce new materials or opportunities with a flourish, or let your children discover them? How can you foster curiosity and engagement by keeping things fresh and unexpected?


Comment by Sarah Jackson on March 11, 2009 at 04:14 PM

I'm still finding the balance between sitting back and letting discovery happen and making sure things are moving forward. If I leave materials out, and then am enthusiastic about them when they find them, it goes pretty well. We have the "what can I/should I do with this?" conversation - with me letting them talk out their own ideas - and then off they go. I'm always surprised to see where they take things, or what will trigger a burst of activity. Meeting Jay McCarroll of Project Runway brought on hours and hours of clothing design by Annika, as well as some experimentation with her own clothing. Gunnar's desire to sell his artwork on his own website has meant days of drawing and designing his site and its functionality. Such great stuff!

However, if it's my idea, forget it. My ideas are boring. :)

Comment by Amy on March 11, 2009 at 04:27 PM

I wish I knew. My son NEEDS to know what to expect from me, his day, and his week. His last question before bed is, "Where are we going in the morning?" (Often the answer is "nowhere," but still he asks.) I was much looser with our kindergarten year, and he didn't like it. He didn't get the sense that he was learning (he was!!) if he didn't see it. Or something. I still don't quite understand. But he likes to have it written out--this is what needs to be done today, this week, and so on. There are still surprises, often along the lines of "Well, we're not getting to that today," usually because we have that new baby and all. :-) Sometimes the surprise is, "Hey! We're finally getting to this!!" Like today. We're finally dyeing yarn. Yay!!

So, if you have a kid who really seems to need a sense of predictability and order... how DO you keep things fresh and unexpected?

Comment by Cathy T on March 11, 2009 at 08:08 PM

I think it can be hard to keep things fresh for kids, especially if they like and thrive on routine. My 4 year old asks me every night to tell him three things we'll be doing the next day."Tomorrow is Thursday and here are three things we will do..." I always start with the day of the week, LOL.

For younger kids I like to rotate toys in and out of my attic. Of course the kids like to help me with that by bringing up toys to "trade" for newer ones. When they are in bed I will occasionally set up things in their playroom, setting up a scene with animals or cars and trucks. That is always a hit and keeps them so busy I wonder why I don't do it more often (hmmm, maybe because I am tiired?!).

My older kids, who are 12 and 14, like to know what I expect of them each day. I have a notebook for each of them where I write any assignments I want completed as well as that day's chores. I try to give them freedom to set their own expectations/desires and sometimes this works, other times it seems to backfire on me and leave us all frustrated. We try to have one project day where the kids pick all that they want to do (other than math and praciticing their music). It is nice to see them in flow when it happens and when it does on "assignment days" they have learned to ask me to change their work load so they can stay with whatever is going so well. I'd love to give them more freedom - I am working on that trust issue with myself and with them....

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 11, 2009 at 08:33 PM

Not a lot of time to respond right now, but a couple thoughts … I don’t think it’s an either-or situation: either completely predictable routine or total surprise. In my quotes above, I talk about an *element* of unpredictability, an *element* of surprise…

My children love a routine as well; they love our weekly traditions as a family. They love knowing some things don’t change.

But when it comes to learning … I don’t think repetition and predictability are as engaging, and I don’t think they create those opportunities for deep learning. That first quote really jumped out at me when I was reading that article, because it speaks to what I love about project-based learning — that it isn’t predictable, and that the constant introduction of something new and unexpected keeps engagement and interest high.

When we had that conversaton about assessment the other day, I was thinking that the problem with a curriculum designed around testing is that you already know exactly what you’re going to be learning and exactly where you are going to (ideally) end up — ho hum. Versus project learning, which is like parachuting into a new landscape with a compass and a canteen.

It’s like the difference between running on a treadmill or outdoors — sure, they both develop your muscles, but the latter adds whole other layers to the experience.

So, giving children the predictable routine they crave, can you still make learning an experience they can’t predict?

Comment by SJ on March 12, 2009 at 01:56 AM

Don't they make their learning an experience that we can't predict?! : )

My 2.5 year old constantly finds new things around the house (or thrifting, or on walks) to bring to her play, and finds new ways to use her materials - I (influenced much by discussions here) wanted to set up a self access art space for her so put out a hardback sketch book, some paper and pencils and crayons. She did almost no drawing, but used the pencils to start her very first building project (put them in a square with all her animals inside) and then went on to extend that to her blocks : )

She is a lover of predictability too - so I like the leaving new things lying around method (I think I thought of doing it this way cause you discussed doing same with project focussed library books Lori). This seems to take much of the worry out of the introduction of something new, and makes it much more interesting than if I draw attention to it to. (Sometimes works for new shoes too - yay!)

Comment by Cordelia on March 12, 2009 at 09:50 AM

Just as important for me is that the unpredictable keeps me engaged. Ever seen the teacher who knows just where the discussion is going pretend to be engaged? I don't think the kids buy it, and i know the teacher doesn't.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 12, 2009 at 04:19 PM

SJ, i think they do — if we let them. often adults hand children a lesson, though, and tell them exactly what they expect from it, and they want to see those planned results.

i was just talking to a friend who still remembers being scolded in grade school for figuring out a math problem in a different way — they didn’t care that he had arrived at the answer, they weren’t interested in having him explain it to them (or the class!); they just wanted him to do it their way.

leaving things for them to discover is exactly what i wrote about in “curriculum of curiosity” —


cordelia, yes, i agree completely — they always know. i have had so many teachers say to me “but this is a great project — the kids love it every year”. they seek the familiar because it’s easier and more predictable, but they give up all spontaneity and the chance to inspire the kids with their own interest.

i think it’s challenging for an adult to begin a new enterprise, not knowing what will happen, with a roomful of witnesses not to mention colleagues peering in at the corners. even at home, most adults seem so worried about outcomes that they are willing to follow a scripted curriculum rather than face the frightening unknown of breaking their own trail.

Comment by Laura on March 12, 2009 at 06:07 PM

“but this is a great project — the kids love it every year” - Arg! I know just what you mean. That always frustrated me as a teacher, because to me it seems that by reusing the exact same activities/projects each year you are not really noticing the children themselves & paying attention to what *this particular group* needs to explore.

I also find it much more satisfying to roll with the children and see where they take me - that element of surprise or unpredictability keeps it interesting, and I think it can help prevent teachers from getting burned-out, too :)

My co-teachers and I also changed the classroom whenever we felt like the kids needed a little shot in the arm. It could be something as simple as putting a new kind of paper in the art area, or as dramatic as moving furniture and adding new materials.

Last thing I want to add: I think it's also wonderful to involve children in the process of changing the environment - it gives them a feeling of power & ownership.

Great post!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 12, 2009 at 06:48 PM

laura, i agree re: it means they aren’t paying attention to the kids as individuals — i also think it’s indicative of an attitude that “the kids learn — i teach”. kwim? they have ceased seeing themselves as learners; they aren’t even thinking about it in terms of learning alongside the kids or learning something new themselves. and back to the idea that each group of kids is different — each group of kids has something to teach you. of course, if they robotically put them through the exact same paces as every other year, they are probably not going to pick up on that.

agree so much re: involving children in shaping their environment! thank you!

Comment by victoria on March 12, 2009 at 11:52 PM

"Uncertaintly engages the mind" - great stuff. There's a lot of food for thought there, even for me who doesn't homeschool, on how to keep our activites interesting and stimulating, at the right level.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 13, 2009 at 12:49 AM

thank you, victoria; i think so, too!

Comment by Cathy T on March 13, 2009 at 12:55 PM

An element of surprise... Hmmm. To think on that. When I asked my 14 year old about it, his first comment was, "Well, don't put mousetraps in the pencil case!" The my 12 year old said how we add different projects throughout the year, like last month helping him learning how to use Blender software (3D animation software he is exploring with the help of two reference books, since my husband and I don't know how to do it!).

I guess we do what you suggest, Lori. Listen to and react to what we hear by putting out new things or by bringing them to new places - my older son is interested in night photography. We live in the country and he wants to do city scenes.... Our curriculum is set up so that the kids have only 2 major things we focus on for the whole year - math and chemistry. But we put aside math for a while each year when the kids get really into their Lego Mindstorm programming - they are on a team that competes each winter.

Comment by Lynn on March 13, 2009 at 02:38 PM

Hello lori!
just wanted to let you know i blogged you!

Comment by wide open spaces on March 13, 2009 at 06:22 PM

I'm constantly feeling guilty that we never have a schedule, never have a plan. My brain just doesn't really work like that. Where's the balance?

Comment by Andrea on March 14, 2009 at 12:09 AM

I feel guilty too that we don't have a schedule or a plan and I feel like somedays I am not facilitating enough. I am not sure what to do about that. We have done some projects and they worked out well but my 8 year old is not motivated by the books I place out for him even if they are things that I have noted he is interested in. I think I am still finding a balance. We just started homeschooling in January. I think that maybe sitting down in the morning or evening together to plan some things we want to do together might help us a bit.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 14, 2009 at 01:25 AM

we need to migrate this conversation about schedule over to the open thread, because i think it’s of general interest.

i think it is harder when you’re making changes, or trying to create a routine. our routine is so organic; it just grows out of the way we live. we don’t have, for example, set times to get up or go to bed, yet we get up and go to bed around the same time every day. we work in the morning and play in the afternoon and evening, because our brains work better in the morning (adults and kids!).

emily, are you keeping any kind of journal?

andrea, are you talking about projects the way we mean here, as in project-based learning? do you mean sitting down and planning for the day or long-term planning?

Comment by Andrea on March 14, 2009 at 03:49 AM

We are attempting to do project based learning because I think that we relate better to that kind of learning. The challenges I am facing right now are getting my kids to want to learn. I am not sure if it is a lack of daily routine that is causing the problem or what it is. Since the kids are accustomed to public school it has been challenging. I am trying right now to sit back and let them tell me what they want to do. My daughter is good at reading and writing and investigating things on her own but my son is not interested in either. I sometimes have a hard time just getting him to listen to me read to him. It seems as though he shoots down any idea that I put out there. doesn't touch any of the books I leave out, and gets very discouraged/or angry even when he is doing something simple like writing a post card to someone. With him it seems the more I try to tell him what to do the more he fights and then when I back off he won't make the choices on his own to try to learn something. I don't think a curriculum would work because he would fight me on every assignment. He would be perfectly happy playing games on the computer all day but I won't let him do that. He does enjoy writing blog entries on the computer, and I am trying to keep a journal to get an idea of what he is drawn to. I was thinking if we sat down each day in the morning to plan the things we wanted to do in the day. We have 2 little ones as well so things don't always go in the same order everyday.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 14, 2009 at 04:20 AM

deschooling can be a challenge in and of itself. people have varying opinions on how best to segue from public school to homeschooling/unschooling. usually a good long break is advised.

children who are used to being controlled by an authority figure at school and who have come to believe that work and fun are two entirely different things have some relearning to do.

can you share why you decided to begin homeschooling?

Comment by Andrea on March 14, 2009 at 04:54 AM

I think we are still in break period and slowly learning how to unschool. I am learning a lot about me and my kids at the same time in the process. I want them to think learning is fun and they do learn while they are doing their fun things. Something that is hanging my husband and I up is, if it is ok that their day is filled with only fun things? playing the guitar and playing games on the computer or drawing used to be a treat after school because they were in school all day. I know that sounds crazy but I feel like I am a horrible teacher because I don't force them to read for a certain amount of time or write. I think it is wonderful that I have such creative kids. I guess we have been programmed to think that life should be mostly work and a little time for play.
We took them out of school because we were unhappy with they way it made us feel. My son Alex wasn't meshing well with his teacher, was getting written up with out being able to explain him self and the school was pushing for me to get him diagnosed with ADHD which they said he had a high probability of having. He does have a hard time sitting still if he is bored or exited. when he is doing something very engaging to him he will sit still. But he needs to have his mind and hands active. This is something they just can't cater to at school.
My daughter was just generally unhappy in 6th grade. We found that the social aspect of this age was taking away from her learning. There are many things that happen during one day that a teacher can not correct, like being pushed in the hall, gossiped about, excluded, peer pressure. My daughter noticed these things on her own and didn't like it. So all this anxiety about boys, friends, that person who knocked down her books was bothering her all day and then she'd come home with 3-4 hours of homework. She is less angry now and still gets to see her friends. So we pulled the plug and are much happier now.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 14, 2009 at 05:26 AM

i think the trick is to change your own minds, if you know what i mean. yours and your husband’s. to change how you see things, so you can then show your children.

instead of wanting them to think that learning is fun, knowing that learning is more than fun — that working on something big and important and meaningful to yourself, something difficult and challenging and toothy, is much more than fun. it’s essential. it is fun, and it’s work, and it’s a lot more.

to be able to see the work inside the fun that they are having when they are playing music or computer games, and to be able to turn that into something more, help them dig down deeper.

if you are able to change your own mindset, then you can really enjoy sharing that knowledge with your children. you can introduce them to a world that is exciting and deeply interesting and fascinating and often difficult, but worth the effort.

did you view that video that i linked to in the first comment of the open thread? you might want to watch that, and then maybe you’ll want to watch it again with your son. really wonderful. the author dav pilkey talks about having ADHD and getting into all sorts of trouble at school. check it out.

congratulations on homeschooling; i’m really happy for your kids and your family. feel free to e-mail me any time as you feel your way along! and, of course, i’m always here as well. ;^) good luck!

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