Developing Curiosity in Schools
Years ago, a teacher at one of the schools where I was principal, was selecting who should receive the academic science award. When he had selected the recipient he explained, “She gets me…she makes me feel like I know what I am doing.” This teacher would pride himself on the fact that he created challenging exam-like tests preparing his grade 8 students for high school, yet many students struggled to achieve in this class, except this one. This wonderfully bright, hard-working student who ultimately received this award, was validating the skill, professionalism and expertise of her teacher.
This begs the question, if we reward children who are most like us, or reinforce our worth as educators, how then do we respond to those who challenge us as educators?
I believe that the reason that educators are disparaging towards certain students is not because they are bad teachers, or they don’t care — I think it is because if they don’t pathologize the student in some way through an explanation of behaviour, lack of achievement or general non-compliance, then it will directly reflect on them and their skill as educators. It will mean that we are incompetent — cue imposter syndrome.
We create narratives about these children. We tell stories that cast the children in a role and we label these children as disruptive and many other disparaging terms. Who does these narratives protect? Who do they harm? Brené Brown explains that “Our minds can build a lot of stories around what we perceive to be happening in our exchanges with others; the brain dislikes ambiguity.” She tells us that we seek the good vs bad scenarios precisely because it gives us a dopamine hit. So we tell the story where we are the hero, or at the very least, the one who tried everything we could and the child, often pathologized alongside their family, becomes the bad guy — the troublemaker.
When you do a search on curiosity in the classroom, more often than not, it is about cultivating curiosity in our learners, our classrooms, our pedagogy. Less likely, is the idea that as educators, we must be curious — curious about our students, curious about the learning we sanction, curious about our own role as educators in light of our social identities and connection to our children
Curious About Students
This summer, I read the book, Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School by Carla Shalaby. What struck me about this book, which tells the story of four children who have been labelled “troublemakers” by their teachers, schools and communities, is that it is a common story. We know who these children are. Parents come in and complain about them. The communities talk about them. No one wants their child with that child and no one thinks their child is that person. But Shalaby disrupts those narratives by going deeper into the story of four children who she explains were her teachers on what it means to practice both freedom and love in our schools and classrooms. She “gets curious” about these children rather than resting in assumptions and narratives that perpetuate the story of that child.
Shalaby tells us she has witnessed , “…troublemaking children being punished with regularity — reprimanded, detained, isolated, removed. They are not described as leaders, as children from whom we might learn. Instead, the descriptions are invariably disparaging: angry, damaged, disturbed, out of control, impossible” and that these same children “are held personally accountable for the assaults to their personhood that they endure daily in our schools.” (p xix)
In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown writes about armoured leadership vs becoming a curious learner: “ It sounds pretty easy to replace the armour of knowing with becoming a curious learner, but for many people the need to be a knower is driven by shame for some even trauma” (Dare to Lead, p 91). She goes on to say, “We cannot practice empathy if we need to be knowers; if we can’t be learners, we cannot be empathetic” (Dare to Lead, p 145).
Brown explains, “Curiosity is an act of vulnerability and courage…we’re scared to have hard conversations because we can’t control the path or outcome, and we start coming out of our skin when we don’t get to a resolution fast enough. It’s as if we’d rather have a bad solution that leads to action than stay in the uncertainty of problem identification” (Dare to Lead, p 171).
Now consider that in the context of students who we struggle to serve effectively. If we are feeling a disconnect in our ability to manage or control a situation, we experience dissonance and that is both cognitive and emotional dissonance because teaching is both. We begin to question our ability because we can’t control or manage the situation, but what if it isn’t about control or managing at all? What if it is about creating a space for this child to express her feelings, struggles, thoughts. Carla Shalaby writes, “In school we generally identify the most pleasant, most compliant children as our leaders, but if being a leader means doing exactly as one is told, we should wonder what it means to be a follower…” She explains that the children who “act out”, speak loudly, misbehave are actually those who are most interested in freedom.
The other day, a child who has been labelled a troublemaker, sat in my office after being removed from his classroom and was told he could not return for the remainder of the day but needed to go to the quiet space. He looks down and mumbles (though loud enough for me to hear), “If I am not allowed to be in class, why am I even at school?” This child is seven years old. This is a child who is interested in freedom.
“These troublemakers — rejected and criminalized — are the children from whom we can learn the most about freedom. They make noise when others are silent. They stand up against every school effort to force conformity. They insist on their own way instead of the school’s way. These young demand their freedom even as they are simultaneously the most stringently controlled, surveilled, confined, and policed in our schools. They exercise their power despite being treated as if they have none.
So what if rather than labelling a behaviour, or worse, punishing a behaviour, a child, a situation, we got curious, ask more questions, inquire as to the meaning of the response? In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown shares that Melinda Gates “often sees curiosity and asking the right questions as a leadership superpower” (p 266). That is a superpower we can develop. Don’t jump to the story…sit in the moment and get curious.
Creating Spaces Where Students Can Be Curious
Not only must we get curious about the students we serve , particularly those we do not understand or relate to, but we must also create spaces in the classroom where children can get curious themselves. They need space to follow their own questions, inquiries, interests. They also need to have the opportunity to be curious about their social responses as well as those of others. Restorative practices offer an opportunity through the practice of think sheets and restorative circles to reflect on what happened when things have gone wrong. Placing these restorative practices in an anti-oppression stance, validates who these children are, grounded in their histories, social identities and experiences as well as their many and different ways of communicating (for more on this, read Christopher Emdin’s, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood: and the rest of ya’ll too.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his son and explains,
…I was such a curious boy. I was raised that way. Your grandmother taught me to read when I was only four. She also taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation…When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as the teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson? I have given you these same assignments. I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behaviour — they certainly did not curb mine — but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing — myself. Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. (pp 29–30)
If neither the student, nor the educator are “innocent”, what are the implications for schools? When we respond to a student’s behaviour with a clear understanding that pathologizes the student, rather than seeking to understand, getting curious, and framing the behaviour as an expression of freedom, we necessarily seek a negative explanation — a problem, an expression of non-compliance. Shalaby reminds us that “arrangements of school were normal and good, so any child unable to tolerate those arrangements had to be abnormal and bad” (p xxii). We must remind ourselves that our expectations of behaviour are steeped in cultural norms of those who hold power, and not necessarily the students we serve. When those seemingly neutral cultural norms are not followed, we take a punitive stance.
Later in the book Coates writes to his son,
The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. (p 48)
Coates’ messaging tells us that not only do we need to become curious about the students we serve, but we need to create spaces where they can also pursue their curiosity about themselves. We want to create classrooms where students are free to pursue knowing, declare their curiosities and uncover the knowledge that is meaningful to them.
Curious About Ourselves
As educators, we must become curious about ourselves.We must be attuned and aware of our positional power. Teachers have power over students, school administrators have power over students and staff. This interplays with powers associated with various social identities that interweave into the fabric of our schools. Audre Lorde describes this as the mythical norm: “white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, middle or upper class”. We must examine our privilege — we must check our privilege.
In So you want to talk about race, Ijeoma Oluo writes: “Privilege, in the social justice context, is an advantage or set of advantages that you have that others do not…if we are truly dedicated to addressing system oppression and inequality, we must understand the full impact of these advantages and disadvantages in order to move toward real change in our society and ourselves.” (pp 59–60)
Oluo warns us that to check one’s privilege “is hard and often painful, but it’s not nearly as painful as living with the pain caused by the unexamined privilege of others.” (p 63) And that, “When we are willing to check our privilege, we are not only identifying areas where we are perpetuating oppression in order to stop personally perpetuating that oppression, but we are also identifying areas where we have the power and access to change the system as a whole.” (pp 64–65).
Oluo tells a story about a young boy named Sagan who, at five years of age, was suspended from school after he was said to have “assaulted two staff members”. She then goes on to point out:
Nobody asked if Sagan was feeling well, nobody asked if Sagan was frustrated or sad or uncomfortable about something. Nobody took the time to figure out how they could help this boy (the only black boy in his entire class), nobody asked what they could do to help Sagan rejoin his class and be able to learn alongside his fellow classmates (p 123).
Why aren’t we asking?
Why aren’t we asking about the students and their behaviours? Why do we assume to know based on our point of view rather than seeking to understand a different truth? A different point of view? Why aren’t we critically examining our assumptions? Why do we assume we are right? How can we shift the narratives?
Brené Brown explains:
“The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending — to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.”
― Brené Brown, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Once again, I refer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk, The Danger of the Single Story, rings true…
We must disrupt the narrative of pathology, blame, good guy vs bad guy, the troublemaker. We must reframe it as Shalaby challenges us to do — the behaviour is a practice of freedom and as educators, we must create the conditions for freedom to be practiced.
Stop acting from fear — fear of the loss of control, fear of judgement, fear of recourse.
*Note about possessive pronouns inspired by Terese Mailhot’s teaching.
Another book I read recently was Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Mailhot. In her book she challenges the notion of the possessive pronoun. “I have tried not to call her my mother. I started to believe that a person cannot own land or a family member” (p 78). She does on to explain that this is a teaching she learned from her mother. “She taught me that I didn’t own things. I really like the idea of possession. We don’t own our mothers. We don’t own our bodies or our land — maybe I’m unsure. We become the land when we are buried in it” (p 79). As this is another edge of my learning, I am working to become aware when I say things like “my” or “our” and have worked to avoid “our students” and “our children” but rather write, “the children/students we serve” with the understanding that within education as a practice of freedom, we do not have possession of another’s personhood.