Book Review: Cultivating Curiosity

I read a professional book titled Cultivating Curiosity by Wendy L. Ostroff that is worth sharing. Here I discuss the ways in which I have implemented some of her ideas and approaches into my teaching practice.

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But first, below is a bit about the book from the ASCD website:

Curiosity comes from within—we just have to know how to unleash it.

We learn by engaging and exploring, asking questions and testing out answers. Yet our classrooms are not always places where such curiosity is encouraged and supported.

Cultivating Curiosity in K–12 Classrooms describes how teachers can create a structured, student-centered environment that allows for openness and surprise, where inquiry guides authentic learning.

Award-winning educator Wendy L. Ostroff shows how to foster student curiosity through exploration, novelty, and play; questioning and critical thinking; and experimenting and problem solving.

With techniques to try, scaffolding advice, and relevant research from neuroscience and psychology, this book will help teachers harness the powerful drive in all learners—the drive to know, understand, and experience the world in a meaningful way.

You can read excerpts by clicking here.

I used to have a room next door to the late Pete Pew, Hart High social studies teacher extraordinaire.  He would often pop in to chat about students and educational topics. One topic we would return to time and time again was the idea of intrinsic motivation. He noted that he found the kids who were most intrinsically motivated performed better and wondered how we could encourage or create intrinsic motivation.  Ostroff has a chapter dedicated to this very concept titled, “Embrace Intrinsic Motivation.”  What I love is that she doesn’t simply throw up her hands and say that by high school students beliefs about who they are as learners cannot be changed (but I know I have felt this way at times and I have also heard other teachers say it is simply too late for them to change!). Instead Ostroff examines ways in which teachers can help students tap into their motivation and retain it.  She also cautions about what can harm intrinsic motivation (who would think praise can be harmful? It can!).

Here is what I tried…

“Sincere wonder and interest, plus a degree of freedom, is the recipe for keeping students intrinsically motivated.”
-Wendy L. Ostroff

My students have been creating a TED Talk as a final project for the past few years.  I used to provide a list of topic choices, but this year I tried a different approach.  As this is a year-long project, I began by tapping into their curiosities in the fall.  Ostroff details an exercise called “Everything is interesting” and I did something similar.  In their Writer’s Notebooks students created a list of potential topics for subjects they are highly familiar with and imagined ways in which they could present these to the class.  Then a few demonstrated the topics in interesting and thought-provoking ways.  Some were over the top and ridiculous, but they found that they enjoyed having the freedom of choice (in both topic and presentation).  They demonstrated their understanding of the material AND they were given permission to be creative in their demonstration.  Over the course of the year they identified a new topic to explore (sometimes switching ideas as their interests changed), researched (books, articles, other TED talks, movies, etc.), rhetorically analyzed sources, wrote a 4-6 page research paper with in-text citations, and are now preparing to bring the research to life for an audience of their peers.  This year more than any other I have seen the power that wonder and freedom can have on our students.  They had (structured) power over their own learning and this gave them the motivation they needed. They wholeheartedly have embraced the project and they spend time out of class deepening their understanding of a topic they care about.  And the best part?  They are using all the skills we learn in class and demonstrating mastery of the anchor standards.

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Students researching and writing in preparation for their TED Talks.  

If you are looking ways to infuse more inquiry in your classroom, please pick up a copy of Cultivating Curiosity…or borrow mine!  The “Curiosity Techniques to Try” embedded in every chapter and her introduction on how to cultivate curiosity have helped me to reflect as a teacher.  Now I am asking more questions and building in more opportunities that may lead to failure-on my part and the students- but I have found that these opportunities also lead to the best surprises.  My students have come to point of being much more autonomous with their learning, more intrinsically motivated, and (I know this is going to sound shocking) they are learning simply for the sake of learning.

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