When your children first entered school, one month ago, the bulletin boards were blank, the paint cups were not-yet-spilled. The crayons were still pointy.
Now, students’ work adorns the walls; paint marks the borders of our easels and the walls just beyond, and crayons are not only dulled at the tip but many broken in half, submissive to the young artist so eager to express herself she doesn’t realize how strong her fingers have become as she jams the crayon against the paper.
Our classrooms are intentionally curated by our teachers in a manner that responds to what we see as each child’s innate curiosity – a desire so strong in young children that it leads them to explore, express, explain, and expand. Curiosity is our chief pedagogical resource; the spark that generates questions, curricula, and learning. It is our national treasure, to be held close and steadfastly guarded over.
Curiosity is what leads our children to turn a beautifully prepared palate of paint into a muddy messy brown – the insatiable desire to find out what happens as I add another, and another, and yet another color to the ever-shifting blend emerging in front of me on the easel. Curiosity is what leads to loud crashes in the block corner – Can I get just one more block on top of that wobbly tower? And how about another? Curiosity is what leads our students in room 7 to be exploring sunflowers and room 6 to be exploring babies and pregnancy. The need to know – intellectually, viscerally, emotionally, socially – is what makes it all happen. It is the engine behind the beautiful messiness that is created in each of our classrooms.
You have seen this curiosity in your children since birth and have supported it at home along the way, perhaps intentionally and perhaps unintentionally. We turn our babies towards noises and light, and delight as their eyes catch sight of the phenomenon. We ooh and ahh as they first reach out and grasp an object, unendingly exploring it orally. We prepare new landscapes of exploration as we alter their toys as they grow, providing virgin terrain for exploration. We feed their hunger.
Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, sees curiosity as akin to hunger in that she labels it “an evolutionarily determined drive” – she points to our evolution as specifically creating modern-day humans who are compelled – at a biological level – to seek to explain the world we live in. Nature compels us to explore and explain, so that we can respond and adapt to a range of experiences while generating understanding and order, thus improving the quality of life for our progeny. Curiosity is an “arousing experience, one that seems to compel us to some sort of resolution and action…finding an explanation for something is accompanied by a satisfaction that goes beyond the merely cognitive.”
The smile on the infant’s face when they reach the rattle. The pride in a nursery student when they do get that extra block on the tower. The utter delight in the creation of a brown puddle on the paint easel. These are those “arousing experiences” that “go beyond the merely cognitive” (but also have plenty of cognitive benefits). Our curiosity drives us to explore; our exploration leads us to fulfillment.
Edward Deci, a longtime leading researcher in motivation, pushes this argument further along and posits that this feeling of arousal, beyond the cognitive, in our moments of curious exploration are what leads to the incredibly strong power of intrinsic motivation. In decades of lab tests, Deci conclusively states that intrinsic motivation – which relies on the arousing capacity of curiosity – is a far more apt tool for learning and performance than extrinsic motivation, such as rewards, imposed deadlines, evaluations, and surveillance. Deci covers life arena such as school, work, and family, and finds the same results everywhere. Curiosity doesn’t just feel good; it is a productive tool for improving your results in any long-term, goal-oriented activity – such as the two-decade project of school that your children have just begun.
You will hear about “being curious” from your classroom teachers throughout the year, and you will see its effects daily in your child’s classroom. You may have heard me state on your admissions tour that “our teachers are question-askers, not question-answerers.” Every question we ask, every new intellectual or tangible terrain we create – adds fuel to the fire, another log on your child’s burning curiosity. Curiosity is what will build our emergent curriculum, and is why each classroom will be studying not a prescribed topic (say, dinosaurs in November and community in December) but rather an area of interest that bubbles up from the buzzing, blooming questions children ask.
Over the course of the year, your teachers will share this process with you, via Daily Reflections and Parent Nights, explaining how we see your children’s curiosity as driving their learning and what we do as teachers to support this marvelous process. I invite you to join us in this process, noting and supporting your child’s curiosity at home. Ask your teachers what your child is curious about at school. Share with your children what YOU are curious about. Give them ample time to explore a new object before you show them how its used. Join them in the joyfulness of curiosity, in discovering something for the first time.