Regular readers of this blog know well that we here at the Bok Center are awfully big fans of active learning. As numerous studies have found, it’s important to get students invested in their own education, rather than treating them like passive receptacles of data. This is true whether your goal is your students gaining a deeper understanding of the course material, or getting an important bit of data lodged into their long-term memory.
The theories and resources on active learning are vast, and the University of Minnesota has a particularly good site dealing with its sundry aspects. Sometimes, though, saying “I’d like my students to be ‘active learners’” can seem a bit abstract, especially when you’re teaching full time. Stirred by a thought-provoking piece by Maryellen Weimer, here’s a more concrete pedagogical goal: I’d like my students to be curious.
For all the pedagogical studies on active learning, the paucity, as Weimer points out, of literature on curiosity is striking. But isn’t curiosity at the crux of the matter? Certainly active learning cannot be reduced just to curiosity. Nevertheless, in terms of getting our students intellectually engaged in their own learning, starting from the premise of trying to awaken their curiosity isn’t the worst place to start. As the industrialist Clay Bedford put it, “You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.” Aside from also wanting to help our female students achieve this, what teacher would disagree with Mr. Bedford?
So what does that mean in the trenches of the classroom? Weimer suggests being openly curious yourself, both by asking questions about your course material that you don’t have a ready answer for, as well as being interested in your students, the knowledge and perspectives they’re bringing to the table. This also validates the experiences of your students, and shows them that their input matters to the class, and can be accomplished just by asking something like “Growing up, how were you guys exposed to issue X?”
But there’s also remembering what put you on that path to be standing in front of the classroom. What was it about your field that first got you curious? Can you bring that infectious curiosity into the classroom? I study nineteenth century Central European history, and so for me that initial source of intellectual attraction was the facial hair of Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany (see picture).
Two caveats here: 1. We can’t expect all undergrads to be nascent PhD students, so the theoretically nuanced “real” reason you decided to pursue your field professionally might not be terribly inspiring for your students. 2. The facial hair of Wilhelm II is not the “real” reason I decided to get a PhD in History.
But it will do! And it’s true that I am deeply curious about that mustache. The culture of public presentation in the nineteenth century is something I am very interested in, and so talking about Wilhelm’s facial hair is a classroom tactic where no zeal need be feigned. First, it’s a matter of taking curiosity seriously (as in its importance – not that you need to present it in a stentorian manner). Next, it’s about finding ways to translate something ostensibly dull for your students (say, the culture of public presentation in nineteenth century Central Europe), into a method of activating student curiosity (“Tell me what you guys think – What is up with that mustache?! What kind of statements is he making to the public with that thing?”). Even if your students don’t respond to your prompt with the same enthusiasm that you did, you’re still helping establish a classroom environment where curiosity and intellectual passion have become part of the educational discourse – and that’s not a bad result, either.