Self-Directed Learning

For the love of reading…

Image from Personal Excellence

Image from Personal Excellence

Reading. It’s the key to much of what we do as educators. Even the subjects that aren’t about “learning to read” such as Math, Science, and Physical Education still require “reading to learn.” And, of course, reading isn’t just about books. Reading is the key to digital learning, too. Heck, you’re reading right now so you will know what is happening when you read the #SlowChatEd tweets all week.

How do we become readers? How can we encourage our students to become readers? We’ll spend the week sharing titles and links to books, articles, and blog posts. Hopefully, these examples will reveal some of our personal experiences as readers and the experiences we create for students to turn them on to reading. (more…)

Week 7: “Curiosity: The Constant UNhappiness?”

The following is a reflection by Eric Démoré (@EricDemore) on Week 6 of #SlowChatEd and is cross-posted on his blog here.

Consider for a moment what brought you to be reading these words. Either:

1) You were asked you to do it. Someone (kindly) made you to click on the link that brought you here. You started reading this post because you felt you should. Or,

2) You asked yourself to do it. You were attracted by what this link promised and decided to open the door it presented to you.

And that, it seems, is what the art of curiosity — our topic for Week 6 of #SlowChatEd — is all about. It’s about following that innate desire to have a question answered. Wait: innate? Mr Barro, could you please clarify?

Questions reside indeed in the soul. So here’s the argument: the right questions are not always the ones handed to us. They’re not always in the textbook. They’re not always the ones on the whiteboard.

So, what then? Teachers can’t ask questions of their learners? Of course we can. But having acknowledged that we are no longer (never have been?) the sole purveyors of knowledge for our students, we find ourselves heeding a call to be more than experts.

We need to be models of curiosity. Lighters of sparks. Sherpas on our students’ quest to have their natural curiosity sated.

Our instinct is to engage the learner’s mind, and this is valid. But let’s not neglect the empirical doors to knowledge: the senses.

Not only might curiosity be a natural tendency, but its ‘sparks’ can come from the natural world, too. A classroom can be an ideal space for fostering inquiry; but so too can a park or an art gallery or a theatre or a neighbourhood. They alight the senses toward questions.

Thanks, @ecsaibel, for that pure bit of poetry. How about reading *that* on your son’s report card:

While Eric has demonstrated a cursory understanding of the periodic table this term, he has begun to exhibit a deeper presence in this world.

Consider what can happen when a student is shown how to ask her own questions, what can emerge if we allow this instinct to follow its natural course. This is the tricky part, of course, because we’re not used to forging ahead without a distinct plan. Teachers are master-planners. We’re prepared; we work well with structure.

But allowing a student to follow the course of her own curiosity — let alone asking ourselves to monitor that of 30 other learners in the same room — can get pretty messy pretty fast. And a bit scary.

I fear not knowing how to deal with chaos. Not to mention adjusting to a drastic shift in our traditional job description. Admission: I fear risk.

But if only we could find a way to structure this type of learning, I’m convinced that what you’ll get is a room full of happy people. After all, as Nobel laureate Alice Munro once said,

The constant happiness is curiosity.

But then also:

Wait, hold up. So which is it?

Does being curious mean being happy or unhappy?

This little gem of paradox came out of Week 6 of #SlowChatEd and I’m grateful for it, because it has placed a whole new set of questions in my hands like a good book, and I find myself not being able to put them down.

Is it possible that I wish to spend my days in classrooms where students are not happy? Not happy with veneer? Not satisfied with injustice? Not content with hypocrisy? Not happy with the immediately unanswerable?

Holy cow. Do I need to change the title of my own blog to ‘The Constant UNhappiness’?

I’ll end with a true story. (Still with me? Still curious?)

(Disclaimer: The following is an update of a post shared last fall. I share it here because it was really the inspiration behind the topic for Week 6 of #SlowChatEd).

As a boy I often found myself staring at a map of Canada that hung above my bed. I could look at the thing for a half-hour, analyzing its contours, focusing on one strange detail or another.

One night, my eye fell upon this shape in the far reaches of northern Quebec:


Is that a circle?, I thought. It looks too perfect a circle not to be some sort of ancient crater. But if a crater, why is it called a reservoir, and not Something crater? Why haven’t I heard about this before?

I was struck by an innate desire to inquire. For whatever reason, I didn’t pursue my question any further. Had it been 2013, I’d have Googled it and had an answer as fast as my thumbs could type ‘crater lake in quebec’. The tools weren’t as readily at hand, I guess (our encyclopedia set from 1981 lived at my grandmother’s).

But here’s the point: I had a question to ask. A good question. Given the right environment and encouragement, I could have set upon a quest to arrive at the answer — and who knows what other answers?

So, what we’re talking about here is a need to find something out — the ability to ask questions that we feel compelled to try to answer.

This was curiosity.

What if all of school were an act of finding the right questions to ask and the journey to answer them?

Imagine a sort of Big Book of Questions from which learners can choose the question that will set them on a path of discovery.

What does it take for a rocket to fly?

What makes banks so powerful?

How do empires fall?

Is war justifiable?

What makes something ‘beautiful’?

What would it have been like to see that crater strike in northern Quebec?

As it so happens, my quest was rekindled recently when Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted this image from his recent stint as commander of the ISS:


The Manicouagan Crater in Québec. 19 years later, my question is answered.

But now I’ve got more of them.