I was watching an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson on CBS Sunday morning, and at the close, he spoke of his role in the universe. He closed with this quote:
Neil deGrasse Tyson just defined for us how to be educators in the 21st century: recognize we all have questions and curiosities, then meet the people in those places of inquiry.
That phrase- a "Servant of those curiosities" came crashing in on me. Those words have stuck with me throughout the day, and as I reflected on them, I found an identity.
I strive to be a "Servant of Curiosities."
I strive to create a learner-centered environment in my classroom every day. Yes, I have content to cover and standards to meet, but I have to see my role as more than just a dispensary of facts. Our students cry out that they want to have relevant topics, things they will "use in the real world." They do not necessarily use the education buzzwords, but they want to know why they need to know the stuff we teach. It thus becomes our role as educators to find their curiosity, and be a servant of it. In order to do that, we must listen to their questions and requests. We need to hear our students to serve their curiosities.
I believe there are five questions that our students are asking that we need to really engage with to serve their curiosities. Three are coming from a very conscious level: What is that? How does it work? When does it apply? We will look at those three first.
What is That?
This is the most basic. If a student looks at content and asks what it is, curiosity is beginning. Often, the student is not asking this about the thing we have defined as the most important part of the lesson. In a lesson I did on Lincoln Douglas debate, I was trying to get them to understand it was a philosophical debate more than a policy or action debate. In the midst, I mentioned some values used and said that Lincoln Douglas is about asking questions like "is there an unselfish good deed?" A student latched onto that phrase and I had a choice: engage that curiosity and veer off course of MY plan, or put that question off until later- if we had time. I chose to engage, and what happened was a robust discussion- and debate- over the question of unselfish good deeds. Did my students eventually get the content they needed to? Yes, but they got it with a sudden understanding of how relevant it was to them because I answered their "what is that?"
How Does It Work?
Once students know what it is, they want to know how it works. That discussion about good deeds turned into a question of how a good deed could be unselfish- and what values a person could hold that would make them even care if a good deed was done for selfish or unselfish motives. They talked of truth, morality, justice, equality- all Lincoln Douglas values I intended to teach anyway- as how motivation to do good worked. In the process, I took chances to interject how that argument or this argument would work in an actual debate.
When Does It Apply?
As I was serving the curiosity of my students by letting them have this informal debate, they began to see the need for organized strategy in debate. I explained that while people will never sit down to a formal Lincoln Douglas debate outside of a competition, the value of organized and researched debate was a critical skill for any communication. Sometimes, in order to identify how content is relevant, we need to find the thing they are curious about in our lesson- even if it seems inconsequential at first- and work to build a bridge from that curiosity to the standard we need to meet.
The unconscious questions are driving these spoken questions. Students will verbally ask the What, How and When, but behind them are these two questions that are key to a student's personal growth. They are definitely in the back of the mind of the students I serve in high school, and you can see them in they way they connect or disconnect with the content. Those questions are: Why do I believe what I believe? and Who am I?
Why Do I Believe What I Believe?
I teach teens who are in the midst of making up their minds about why they should go to college, why they should vote and why they should vote that way, why they should or should not believe in religion, and perhaps most importantly- why do they believe they will be successful- or a failure- in life?
Students are asking the surface questions of What, How and When because they want to know how to determine what they believe about the world around them. And their role in it. This question begins to get to what deGrasse Tyson was saying about Cosmic Curiosities. Students want to know where they fit in the grand scheme of things, but they express these questions by questioning why the content we find so important should be important to them. In short, we need to help students find out how to think for themselves instead of just giving them the right answer. This is not answered by standardized tests or more rigor- it is answered by letting the students seek their curiosities and guiding them through their discoveries about them.
Who Am I?
Every student is asking this of us, their friends, parents, and the community around them. They cannot answer that until they know why they believe what they believe- until they know how to think for themselves. Who Am I? is evident in the What is that? because they want to know what they think about that thing. In the How does it work? portion, the student wants to know if it is worth their time to figure out how it works. In the When does it apply?, students are asking if they are the kind of person who will use this after the test. Will it impact them?
Neil deGrasse Tyson answers his Who am I? by saying he is a "Servant of Curiosities." He seeks to answer the questions that others have about the universe that helps them understand what it is, how it works, when it applies to them, why they believe what they believe about it, and who they are in relation to this thing.
He is an educator.
We do this every day. We definitely do not deal in as atmospherically lofty curiosities, but we do deal with equally important curiosities that shape our individual students. We are either feeding their curiosity, or starving it out in the name of "getting through the content." The truth is, sometimes we need to stop and feed the curiosity of students to get them to the point of understanding the content.
I believe every student wants to learn, they just do not all know how to get from their curiosities to the facts and activities in our lesson plans. Let us be servants of curiosities that dive into the interests of our students as we meet them where they are.
Here is the segment from CBS This Morning