The obsession with ‘curiosity’ gets curiouser and curiouser

5th August 2016 at 01:00
Inquisitiveness is an innate quality to be nurtured, not an item to be ticked off an assessment checklist

Something has been niggling at me. Recently, I have heard the word “curiosity” mentioned numerous times during training sessions and meetings. “Mark, you have to become curious,” I have been told.

What senior leadership teams do not realise, I fear, is that I am and have always been curious about teaching and learning – and I do not need reminding of this in such a reductive and superficial manner.

Furthermore, curiosity is something that is embedded in my psyche. It was this quality that led to me to read classical literature at an early age, including epic poetry such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. Surely, then, curiosity is all about igniting ambition and insight, and enabling the learner to research and read further?

In my lessons, I use an eclectic range of approaches, such as extended questioning, to elicit high-order thinking skills and arouse curiosity in my students.

In a recent lesson, my learners were taught how to dance the tarantella in relation to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Throughout this interactive session, I employed extended questioning: “But why is Nora dancing this?” and “Is there a sense of women and performativity here, and objectification within a patriarchal society through the male gaze?”

This led into a discussion about the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. I am constantly extending student responses through the use of penetrative questioning.

Another technique that can be used to foster curiosity is flipped learning. I leave critical essays on the college’s virtual learning environment and ask students to read an article and then answer questions on it. A recent essay on Othello included the question, “Is Iago ultimately evil?” This triggered detailed debate around whether Iago was a Machiavellian villain and the nature of vice – does he have a motive or (in the words of Coleridge) does this character embody “motiveless malignity” from the outset of the tragedy?

I recently had a CPD session where this phrase from Ofsted’s common inspection framework was used: “Learners are curious, interested and keen to learn.” Now, after some external training, colleagues are following the term “curious” like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It’s almost as though someone has proclaimed: “Come on, everybody – you need to make your lessons curious and inspire curiosity!”

Personality is key

Students do not just become curious. Curiosity is innate. Through cultivating this, ownership of independent learning can be achieved.

I remember my own English literature A-level teacher at school. What inspired me most was his eccentricity and his ability to use humour, which heightened my enjoyment of the subject. I feel that it is utterly naive to think that staff personality is not key to igniting curiosity, as it is fundamental to the developing learner.

When we were studying The Inheritors by William Golding, I remember the class piling into our teacher’s Volkswagen van (before the days of health and safety!) and driving out to the woods to jump over rivers and pretend to be Neanderthals. This heightened my curiosity about the subject. I went on to study English literature at university, before becoming an English teacher myself.

Surely, then, the key to curiosity is inspirational teaching and high expectations, combined with intellectual and academic rigour. Furthermore, studying is about a sense of discovery, and not simply giving students a set of reductive learning objectives from the outset that state the obvious. We need to inspire a sense of imaginative discovery that leads to different avenues in terms of learning being a continuum.

With the new linear specifications for A level, teaching, learning and assessment need to be developed over time and students need to be nurtured. But must we really shout about the word “curious” as though we were demented banshees? If we do, curiosity will end up being suffocating and stifling and ultimately, of course, it will kill the cat.

Mark Chutter is curriculum leader for English and the humanities at Sussex Downs College

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