An Interview with Wendy Ostroff

Author — Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms

October 12, 2016
Email Interview with Wendy L. Ostroff, PhD.

Dr. Ostroff is a developmental and cognitive psychologist and a professor at the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies at Sonoma State University, a seminar-based program that prepares prospective teachers and emphasizes critical reading, writing, and thinking.

In July of 2016, she authored the book Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms: How to Promote and Sustain Deep Learning .

Dr. Ostroff, my principal started off the year by encouraging all San Marino High School teachers to cultivate curiosity in their classrooms. If the teachers responded accordingly, what would the typical San Marino High School classroom look like at the end of the year?

If the San Marino High School teachers took your principal’s idea to heart, he typical classroom would look more like a hacker space, improv stage, art collective, science lab, or café — in other words it would be a dynamic setting defined by its users.

The teachers and learners would at times be indistinguishable from one another, because they would be collaborating on projects and ideas; inquiring and questioning and thinking about their genuine interests. There would be freedom to investigate and create; self-assessment and metacognition, as well as accountability to the group, would be built in. There would be fits and starts in this classroom — spells of incredible insight germination, and times of stillness and repose. Everyone would have the chance to both teach and learn, take intellectual risks and make mistakes in a non-judgmental environment. Students would venture into the unknown, be given freedom and respect, and be taken seriously. Teachers would model genuine curiosity by trying new things themselves — on the fly — in real time. They would not be in charge, but would know their students really well and have the time and trust to divert from any plan if something else sparked.

Credit: Drew Kelly for The New York Times

San Marino High School is often described as a high achieving, nationally acclaimed public high school located in San Marino, CA. Do you know of any high achieving, nationally acclaimed high schools with a reputation for having cultivated curiosity in the classroom? If so, can you name one or two for us?

Since the publication of ‘Cultivating Curiosity’ I have heard from many educators who are trying new innovations to support curiosity in their schools. The public schools in Merrimack, New Hampshire; Lee H. Kellogg School in Falls Village, Connecticut; Brightworks School in San Francisco, California; and Brookline High School in Massachusetts stand out as schools that prioritize curiosity. The Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, of course, has been a beacon of cultivating authentic curiosity for more than 40 years.

In your book, you say that “to reinstate curiosity in our schools,” we have to “disengage the education system from standardization — both in curriculum and assessment.” Is that your way of saying you are not a fan of the Common Core Standards?

Since the Common Core Standards are more open-ended than many of the state standards that were in place before them, they may be a step in the right direction for giving teachers the power to determine how their students will best learn. However, for me, the Common Core Standards have the same fundamental problem that any prescriptive standards have, namely, they are based on the philosophy that education must be standardized to be of high quality, and by implication, that student mastery displayed via successful test-taking represents learning. The very nature of standardization usurps the freedom and creativity that defines deep, transformative teaching and learning. Those things come from within — not from above.

As a developmental scientist, I know the research on learning and cognition very well: skills like reading and numeracy do not emerge in learners in linear, predictable ways. In other words, contrary to common perception, there is no evidence that children who learn to read sooner are better readers over time; no data to show that kids who use the scientific method by third grade (versus out in the world) are better problem solvers or thinkers. Knowing that kids are marvelous and profound learners — that their brains have both evolved and developed to learn in a variety of situations — I see very little benefit to standardizing what kids learn.

For me, the number one priority of school (above and beyond any particular content or set of prescriptive outcomes) is to forge in students a love of learning; to support their curiosity and not kill it. Any structure that disrupts that is to me doing much more damage than helping. Whether third graders are learning fractions or fifth graders are learning to compare and contrast in their writing, while ninth graders use claims and counter-claims is irrelevant, arbitrary, and absurd to me. “Do they want to learn it?” is the only question that matters. (By the way, if the answer is “They don’t,” then they won’t — at least not in any lasting, meaningful way).

I teach both the Advanced Placement (AP) US Government course and the regular (College Prep) US Government course and am a big fan of flipped learning. If you had said to me, before I become a fan of flipped learning, that I was to cultivate curiosity in both of these classes, I probably would have responded by saying “Sure, in my regular US Government course, no problem, but as for my AP US Government class, that’s going to be easier said than done . . . just not enough time . . . way too much content to deliver.” Dr. Ostroff, if I had said that to you, how would you have responded?

AP classes are to me a relatively puzzling invention. What they do is offer the elites (those whose high schools can afford to offer them) another avenue to out-perform. The whole concept of AP classes seems to be causing an epidemic of anxiety in high school students. This is deeply troubling, knowing the research that stress halts the functioning of the executive functions of the brain (those systems that are most important for critical and creative thinking, not to mention success in school). What is the point of AP classes? They are used only for college admissions, not at all for college success once the students have arrived. (As an aside, in my nearly 20 years as a college professor I have taught over 40 distinct courses — general education, in-major core courses, capstones, and electives, and have never once observed a benefit of a student having taken an AP class).

Indeed, once a student gets to college or university, no one speaks about AP classes (save for the advisors that negotiate the transfer credit). Since AP classes count as minimal elective credits, rarely for general education or major courses at all, the best a student can hope for is a slight tuition savings because his or her elective units have been minimized. Meanwhile teachers of AP classes are under an immense amount of pressure from an outside board that imposes what must be covered in their curriculum so that their students can pass the AP tests.

Because of AP classes, the students who are brightest and most interesting and most interested are forced into a top-down model of learning during the time when they are most ripe for authentic, transformative experiences. Being forced to “cover” a predetermined content is a horrible approach to deep learning. Meaning and genuine learning cannot be delivered.

Today, the only way I see AP teachers being able to cover the required content and at the same cultivate curiosity is for them to flip their AP classes. But I didn’t see mention of flipping in your book. Did I miss something or did you intentionally leave out mention of flipped learning?


I do think that the flipped classroom can be very effective for getting students to be active learners in school. But the reason I did not discuss the flipped classroom in ‘Cultivating Curiosity’ is more of a philosophical one. AP classes come with a specific required content, a set of stuff that students must master, and after they do that and ace a particular format of assessment (a high stakes test), they will be considered “learned” or “smart.” I believe that all of this is antithetical to curiosity.

First, as a mountain of research studies on memory and cognitive science will tell us, almost all content is lost. Unfortunately, most of your AP students will not remember the vast majority of what they learned in AP history. Human memory does not work that way. Instead, memory is active, interactive, and an incredibly efficient brain function; when something is no longer relevant or useful, it is quickly forgotten.

The way that I approach learning in ‘Cultivating Curiosity’ is from a process perspective. Content matters insofar as it is interesting to the learners, but a particular content is irrelevant — we can study the Reformation, or Civil Rights, or the history of the factory down the street — all will be important — none should be prioritized over the others. What matters is studying something the students genuinely, with their whole being and enthusiasm, want to learn and know about. Beyond that, the reading or watching or interviewing or researching or discussion can happen in class or out of class, on a train or in the rain, anywhere, everywhere. When learners are curious, all of life becomes a flipped classroom, since there will no longer be boundaries between school and home, work and play.

Do you think it is easier for teachers of certain high school classes (social science classes, for example) to cultivate curiosity than it is for teachers of other classes (math classes)?

I think that it may take more creativity for a teacher to make his or her topic tap into the sincere curiosity of the students, but I believe that once we divorce from a certain content, any topic can be made bottom-up (that is, based upon students’ genuine interests) and jolt curiosity. The job of the teacher is to get kids actively interested — to help them discover their own passions for a subject or a method. We need to invite them to be intellectuals in our topics, whether it is calculus, learning a foreign language, or understanding human psychology. This is why academic freedom is paramount.

When I begin the year with a new group of students, I have no idea what is going to spark them. I need to have many possible plans and questions and options, and I need to let them choose what they want to learn about and how they want to get there — while I guide and scaffold that process. Teachers are much more like improv actors than like stage actors in a play. The script must be thrown out again and again at times — but each teacher’s challenge is to find that “in” — to get them hooked. That is why we have to be curious, too. We teachers need to love to learn, and model that ecstatic learning within our disciplines.

Do you think it is easier for teachers at certain K12 levels to cultivate curiosity? In other words, do you think it’s easier for elementary school teachers to cultivate curiosity than it is for high school teachers?

Unfortunately, by the time children have reached high school, many of them have had the curiosity squeezed out of them. When I ask my brand new college students what they want to write about, or how they want to be assessed, or what they are interested in, they think it’s a trick question. What they really want to know is what will get them an A. It takes many weeks to break them of this horrible habit of “playing the game of school.” We do break through it, eventually, and they do transform and begin to do the work that they want to do, including asking their own genuine questions. So, yes, I think that kids who have been less indoctrinated (in the earlier grades) might be easier to crack open. They have not shut down their natural inquiry yet. (Of course the data in developmental science indicates that children, from the time they enter kindergarten, go from asking an average of 140 questions per hour to asking under 5 — so teachers of young children may have the hardest job of protecting curiosity and not letting it get squashed by the structures of school).

In your book, you say, “For students to be able to express curiosity, they must feel entitled to ask and to seek, even if it means going against the grain and straying a bit in their explorations.” You also say “Curiosity is by nature subversive to the traditional, top-down classroom” and that “Curiosity is most associated with intensity, transience, and impulsivity, all three of which tend to be discouraged in hierarchical classrooms.” How have high school teachers and administrators typically responded when hearing you say something like this?

At first these statements might seem like they are meant to undermine teachers and administrators. But in fact, these statements are really meant to give them trust, freedom and respect. They are also meant to undermine top-down, outmoded ways of conceptualizing school. I believe that the point of going to school is to engender deep, genuine learning in students. And after two decades of studying how people learn, I think that we can do better than we are doing.

Most teachers love to learn, and most administrators were once teachers. Year after year, my brightest and most curious and creative students become teachers and feel powerless in a hulking, top-down education system that often distrusts them and takes away their academic freedom. I have never met a teacher that extolled the virtues of standardized testing. I have never met a teacher that wanted less rather than more freedom in his or her classroom. We now have the science to understand how children learn. It is time to re-envision our education system and give that power to the teachers and learners.

What in your opinion is the single biggest criticism leveled at the proponents of those who seek to cultivate curiosity as described in your book? What do you think is the best response to that criticism?

The single biggest criticism that I have heard is that this is unrealistic,that we are in a system that cannot be changed, and that these are pie-in-the-sky ideas that can only work in elite private schools, or other places not dealing with the harsh realities of public K-12 schooling.

I reject that view. In the U.S., our education has become more about standardization and accountability, and less about learning. But I don’t think it’s too late to make school about deep, authentic learning based on genuine curiosity of teachers and students. We have close to three decades of research about the brain and learning to let us know how learning best happens. We can still change the system, and we must. The most impoverished and under-served children need to be empowered, curious learners most of all They need to develop their voices and agency in order to make real change in their communities. Their experiences need to be heard and to be trusted. Cultivating curiosity is not limited by class size (I have seen curiosity classroom models in K-12 classrooms of 35–40 students, functioning beautifully). What needs to happen is that teacher training needs to be refocused on learning — how, specifically, children best learn — and then given the trust and freedom to take care of their own students.

We can’t just say, “Oh well, that’s the system we are in. There isn’t anything we can do.” It is a mistake to base education on a capitalist, consumerist model. We now have the research on how kids learn; they learn by being curious. We have to shift how we teach to take that into account.

Is there anything in your book that you would like to share with the reader that I haven’t yet given you a chance to talk about.

Time and space are really important for curiosity to emerge, and that that is what we need to shift as well. Curiosity can’t happen in 40-minute blocks with imposed outcomes and results in prison cell rooms with little light. Humans have evolved in dynamic milieus and physical, outdoor situations where they are moving and engaging in many modalities. Our brains continue to function best in those environments. Likewise, ideas and flow states and great questions take time to emerge. If we are forced to artificially shift topics every 10–20 minutes, we have lost much of the hope of going deeply into anything. Intellectual risk-taking can also not be scheduled into a chopped up day. Both students and teachers have to trust one another in order to go into that tender territory. We have to be ok with making mistakes with one another; that’s how learning happens.

Is there anything new and exciting on the horizon for you? Another book?

I have begun to work with fellow educators and cognitive scientists on making real changes, both small and large, to cultivate curiosity in classrooms. This year I have been hosting workshops on curiosity tools for educators from preschool through higher education related to accessing and integrating what we know about learning into the way we teach. Also, I am currently working with Spring Hill Schools in Petaluma, CA to create a middle school from the ground up, with the goal of teaching students the way that students best learn, and empowering teachers as their guides.

Is there anything in closing you would like to add that I haven’t asked you about yet?

I would just like to add that I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to be interviewed for this project! The questions were very compelling, and I really enjoyed thinking about and articulating my responses. I look forward to seeing the finished piece!

Dr. Wendy L. Orloff

Sidenote #1
This work produced in collaboration with former SMUSD Superintendent Loren Kleinrock.

Sidenote #2
Next up, an interview with author Jon Bergmann of Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day.

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