Passion and curiosity can’t happen ‘on demand’! or 'What do the 'shoulder shruggers' need?'

As many readers of this blog know, I have been busy exploring various approaches to personalized inquiry in schools. This has been one of my own significant ‘inquiries’ over the last few years. Providing more personalized inquiry opportunities for students is certainly gaining in popularity and momentum and happens in various ways through such approaches as genius hour, innovation days, itime, etc. Each year, I learn many new lessons about how to make these opportunities work more effectively to ensure high quality, rigorous learning while providing choice and flexibility. Two comments in recent times have given me pause for thought. The first came from a child - not from a school I have worked in - but one that is obviously making efforts to personalize learning. The children have all been given the opportunity to do a ‘passion project’. They have 4 weeks and are using some class time and some homework time to complete it. They have simply been told to ‘investigate their passion’ To be fair, the school does not seem to have a strong, explicit inquiry program so she may well felt more equipped and connected if it had. Regardless, it's not the first time I have heard a child say… “But I don't really HAVE a passion, I don’t know what to do!” Far from being excited by the prospect of investigating something of her choice, this 11 year old was floundering - grasping at random ‘topics’ her teacher had selected and shrugging at any suggestions I made related to some of her (admittedly limited) interests outside of school.

The second comment I heard was from a parent following a talk I gave recently where the focus was on ‘wandering and wondering’ with your child and the delight and power of young children’s questions. At the end of the talk she said her own child asked lots of questions and was a keen, curious learner at home…but when it came to “discovery time” at her son’s school, he was often ‘stuck’ and did not know what to do – he also felt rushed to pick something to work on for the session and expected to suddenly ‘switch on’ his curiosity. I sensed a few problems with the way these sessions may have been run but did not take that further. What I DID say was that like all learners, we can’t expect kids to be curious ‘on demand’ .

Passion, strong interest, curiosity, a desire to find out or learn to do something new or better….these are the driving dispositions of personalized inquiry. Some children almost spill over with enthusiasm and an eagerness to pursue something while others - well not so much. So, what do they need? What do the ‘shoulder-shruggers’, the ‘I dunno’s’, the “I’ll do what he’s doing” kids need ... in order to be more authentically engaged in experience of personalized inquiry?

  1. Time. Rather than seeing the foci for itime/genius hour as something to work on in dedicated sessions – encourage kids to build a bank of possibilities throughout the year. Researcher’s notebooks, wonderwalls, ideas boards, etc. allow the learner to collect their own questions and interests as they arise – rather than ‘on demand’. Gradually building a collection of possibilities gives the students something to ‘dip into’ when they have an opportunity to launch into a new journey of inquiry. Curiosity – even passion – as dispositions that need to be nurtured as part of a wider classroom culture.
  1. Inspiration. Part of the teacher’s role is to be ever on the look out for stimulating, interesting questions/issues/events that might pique interest and be worth pursuing…share these with the children and create a bank of wonders for those students who might need that extra support. Websites like are excellent resources. Ted talks, short video clips, articles - can all provide great springboards for interest.  Teachers who consistently model their OWN enthusiasm for learning, finding things out and who show excitement about the range of things kids themselves are interested in go a long way to providing an inspiring atmosphere for inquiry. And while we encourage children to become passionate learners – let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by making children feel that if they are not PASSIONATE about it, it's not worthy! A thoughtful, even reserved interest may be enough to provoke a quality investigation. Once underway, itime or its equivalent can generate its own energy as children gain ideas from each other. Have students share their investigations in small groups, conduct gallery walks, keep public lists and charts of the ideas they have explored – peers inspiring peers.
  1. Breadth. Beware the dreaded ‘topic’… itime investigations do not have to involve students inquiring into a random topic (eg: panda bears, formula 1 racing) …they certainly may…but they may also be an opportunity to improve a skill or learn a new skill, to work on an action plan, to canvas people’s opinions about an important issue, to create make and build. If students think of a ‘project’ the way many of their parents experienced a ‘project’ it is no wonder they can’t get past simply choosing a topic. The best personalized inquiries are also seen by students and teachers as an opportunity to ‘build their learning muscle’ - it’s so much more than the content.
  1. Forethought.   Many of the more successful personalised inquiry programs I see, really scaffold students thinking before, during and after their investigations. Students complete proposals (careful not to make them too arduous!), or keep researcher’s notebooks, and conference with peers and teachers to gain support and advice rather than simply ‘coming up with a topic’.
  1. Trust: One of the struggles we have as teachers is our own tendency to judge the choices that children make. We give them a choice – but we can also make it pretty clear when we disapprove of the choice! Perhaps this is why some are tentative to say what they want to explore. Of course there will be some things that won't be appropriate for investigation – and criteria for that can be worked out with the class. But we need to be mindful not to shoot down their interests because we might not judge it worthy of spending time on. The best teachers I see know how to take that child's desire to learn about (eg soccer) and help them develop a question or a focus for investigation that stretches thinking without devaluing their interest (eg: How has the game of soccer changed in the last 50 years – is it a better game now than it was?Why?). Spending time in thoughtful conversation with children who need that extra support is vital. Just as we conference with students about their reading and writing – so too should we about their researching. This is not ‘teacher free’ learning!

Providing opportunities for true, personalized inquiry as part of our classroom program can be a wonderful way to support the growth of the learner.   But if we expect them to ‘turn on the curiosity’ for one session a week without a broader culture of inquiry and the necessary time for reflection and inspiration, well…I guess we can expect our fair share of ‘cut and paste’ posters and half-hearted powerpoint presentations.

How do you encourage and sustain authentic passion and curiosity in your classroom?

Just wondering…