When we talk about what schools fail at teaching kids today, the focus tends to be on teachers and / or parents. As in, what are parents doing or not doing to raise their kids right?
Susan Engel, a psychologist at Williams College whose op-ed pieces in the NYT I have found to be thoughtful defenses of kids and parents (and playing!), has a book that I plan to purchase at my local independent bookstore: Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become. (How I like to see academics writing popular books!)
The point of the book is to look at the science and distinguish between what can and cannot be changed about kids. "It's unlikely that any parents, however loving or involved, can fundamentally change whether a child is dreamy or driven, shy or gregarious, optimistic or anxious," writer Ali Benjamin explains in her profile of Engel, which appears in the September 2011 issue of the Williams Alumni Review. "Nor can a parent influence whether a child has a temper or calm demeanor, what captures his interest or even her basic IQ."
Curiosity, however, is an attribute that Engel suggests can be influenced. "When kids want to know the answer, they learn the material more deeply, they remember the answer longer, and they can do more with the information," Engel tells the Alumni Review.
Here is what caught my attention:
Research shows that at home a preschooler will ask an average of 25 to 50 questions each hour. But several years ago, when Engel and her students recorded the day-to-day activities in area kindergarten and fifth-grade classrooms, they found a significant drop in the number of questions asked. An entire class of 22 kindergarteners might ask only two per hour. By fifth grade, several hours might pass before a single question is raised.
Engel discussed how this resarch her own observations indicate "there's so much pressure on teachers to teach lessons that there's not time to deviate and allow kids to follow their hunches."
It is not all bad news. Engel describes how teachers themselves can be encouraged to encourage curiosity: "Teachers who were told the goal was to 'help the student learn about science' encouraged student inquiry and exploration significantly more than teachers who were told the goal was to 'help a student finish a worksheet.'"
It is true that as a college professor, I sometimes find myself astounded and frustrated by the lack of curiosity that too many students in my classes exhibit. Unless it is a question that will be asked on the exam, too many seem utterly apathetic about knowing anything. (I also hear students express their frustration with other students who in their opinion are not taking advantage of being in college. So, the incuriosity is notable.)
If Engel is correct about encouraging curiosity, then testing students and assessing teachers actually works against learning and there should be a lot less learning for / teaching to the test.
What are the ways that parents might encourage curiosity? It might be not about enrolling them in enrichment activities or constructing perfect parent-child teaching moments and continuing to up the ante on parenting.
As I read excerpts from the Engel profile aloud to StraightMan this morning as he shaved, benignly neglecting Bubbie who was loading his toy cars into the seat of his ride-on scooter (I have no idea why...), Beanie called from the other room (where she was sprawled on the floor with colored markers and a ripped T-shirt that she was decorating as a banner for Christmas - never too early to start, I guess...): "What is psychology? Do I ask a lot of questions? So, is it good to ask a lot of questions? Why are you not answering me?"
For those of us who might have been hoping that I was referring in my title to a certain Norwegian pop group of the 1980s.