How to Kill Student Curiosity in 12 Easy Steps

Each year, it seems, our school systems commit themselves ever more profoundly to the corrosive idea that test scores and “instruction” – not learning” – must be prized above all. Amongst incredible pressure from government and district agencies, a drive to keep up with rapid technology change, and the need to bridge cultural chasms in the classroom, many teachers are finding themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place: their own understanding that personalized (rather than standardized) learning is what a great education should be about, and the reality that such an approach would often lead them into “dangerous” waters, where students might begin to think for themselves and ask difficult questions – rather than simply be able to check the right box on an all-important test.

The folks over at TeachThought recognize this conundrum and have come up with 12 easy steps to help your children’s teachers avoid such nasty conflicts. The secret, they figure, is to stifle student curiosity, right from the moment the kids walk through those classroom doors.

Killing a learner’s natural curiosity doesn’t happen overnight. It can take as long as twelve years, and in rare cases even that isn’t long enough.

Public school learning environments focused on standards, assessment, and compliance allow for the implementation of research-based teaching strategies in pursuit of streams of data to prove that learning is happening.

Curiosity is nice, but it’s a monumental challenge to measure.

And who has ever been accepted to college or qualified for a job by demonstrating how strong their curiosity is, anyway?

Below are twelve tips to help stifle learner curiosity and keep the learning nice and tidy in the classroom this school year. And please share any we missed in the comments below or on the TeachThought facebook page.

1. Dictate the learning domains.

Whether physical or digital, individual or group, you’re the teacher (or “district curriculum coordinator”). You decide what is to be learned when and how, and on whose grounds. Make the schedule, the curriculum, the tests, the grading system, the feedback loops–all of it. That’s what you’re paid to do.

2. Limit learner choice.

Voice and choice sound great in theory, but who knows better what a learner needs than the teacher? They’ll appreciate you when they get older and can read and write.

3. Think in black and white.

Right is right. And if they’re wrong, it does no good to coddle them. Binary thinking is how we got to Mars.

4. Focus on answers, not questions.

Again, see #3. No matter how they perform in your open-ended, hippie-style project-based learning that seeks out personalization and community, the Common Core standards-based exams, university expectations, and “real world” aren’t like that. The process of arriving at an “answer”–thinking–pales in priority to accuracy.

5. Only use technology when it’s tidy.

Learning simulations, Prezis, iPads, Android Nexus tablets, and blogging are great when they don’t cross lines, invite rule-breaking, or make assessment a challenge. Just make sure you check state, district, and school policy before you send a student to YouTube to “learn.”

6. Force awkward collaboration.

Collaboration is the stuff of legend. Whenever you can cram a partner or group-activity in where individual thought and reflection used to be, do it. Collaboration makes miracles even if the learning objective doesn’t seem to suggest it.

7. Use very little music, art, or physical movement.

The real world might be filled with color, sound, and physical movement, but in the classroom it’s messy, distracting, and difficult to manage. Nip it in the bud.

There is color on the walls, sound coming from the teacher, and physical movement on the way to the cafeteria. (And in neat lines, too.)

8. Reject inquiry-based, project-based, or place-based learning as not “research-based.”

Research and data are the real engines to education reform. Give a test. Chart the data. Refine the teaching based on the data, and bask in the glow of your success.

After all, Socrates, Shakespeare, Kant, Newton, and Einstein were all educated with researched-based, data-driven pedagogy. If there’s no data showing it works, reject it. (And whatever you do, don’t build better data collection tools to attempt to measure the effectiveness of progressive learning tools yourself. Leave that work to education experts like Robert Marzano, John Hattie, and Rick Stiggins.)

9. Keep it academic.

Learning is in schools, laboratories, and formal field work for a reason. “Authenticity” is an antonym for rigor. Keep it formal, sterile, and academic. Leave the children’s lives, their family traditions, cultural legacy, and individual gifts out of it.

10. Fail to consider the role of play and informal learning.

If it can’t be measured or directed as a learning outcome in a backwards-planning format, it’s dangerous, and could disrupt the learning process entirely. If it’s not planned, it’s play—and if it’s play, it’s not learning.

11. Focus on standards blindly. 

Learning standards are the best way to ensure an even learning experience for all students. Work backwards not from habits of mind, evolving learning currencies, or the way students seek out and use information, but rather the standards. And do so with brutal efficiency.

12. Be sure not to model curiosity.

Spend very little time authentically modeling how to ask great questions, seek out information yourself, or react playfully but swiftly when you realize your own knowledge is insufficient. They need to see a teacher as a model of knowledge and expertise, and most of all, ultimate authority.


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