Curiosity = Respect
By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

Last week I wrote about the importance of engaging with curiosity when students exhibit unwanted behavior. Asking why, and inviting the “offender” to help solve the problem they created signals respect and makes it far more likely that a positive resolution will be achieved.

This week I’m exploring further the concept that curiosity conveys respect – in instruction and in all aspects of interpersonal relationships.

Picture a student struggling to solve a math problem or choose a topic for a written essay. As teachers, we are natural problem solvers, so our instinct might understandably be to help the student solve the problem as quickly and efficiently as possible. A common teacher-student exchange might go something like this:

Student: I’m feeling frustrated with this math problem.

Teacher: Don’t get upset! Here are some strategies you can try… [followed by a series of recommendations/next steps aimed at solving the math problem].

Or, in the case of the essay:

Student: I can’t think of anything to write about for our persuasive writing assignment.

Teacher: What about all the important things that have happened in the news lately? Think about [list of current events that have appeared in recent headlines].

It’s certainly useful for students to acquire effective strategies for solving math problems. And we definitely want our students to be aware of, and care about, the newsworthy items that affect our lives. However, when we jump in and “give” students strategies for doing their work, we are assuming we know what they want (to get the answer right/complete the assignment properly) and what they need (a teacher-provided strategy for doing so).

Instead of making assumptions about what our students want and need, what if we engaged our curiosity and asked them? Imagine asking the student struggling with the math problem: What have you figured out so far? or What kind of help would you like? For the student who’s drawing a blank on essay topics, consider: Can you think of something you wish were different about our classroom or school? or Have you ever read something that changed the way you thought or felt about an issue?

Engaging with students from a place of curiosity, a genuine desire to deepen your own knowledge and understanding of that student, conveys respect and humility. If I’m asking about you, then I’m acknowledging: 1-that you are interesting and worth getting to know, and 2-that I don’t have all the answers.

These principles extend beyond instruction into all aspects of interaction. 

Curiosity, and the respect it conveys, are core to building equity. Each time we engage with a student, colleague, parent/guardian, friend, or stranger, we can choose to do so from a place of curiosity instead of assumption. Asking is a far better teaching tool than assuming.

Assumption – about what someone wants, needs, knows, feels, is capable of – undermines equity, and underlies stereotyping and other forms of prejudice. Curiosity, the opposite of assumption, can be a key ingredient in promoting equity as well as learning, in the classroom and beyond it.

It feels good to ask and be asked, about things that matter. May curiosity guide you to new learning this week. 

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Seeing with Different Eyes 

What can we learn from our students when we pause to learn more about how they perceive things? What can they learn from each other when they do the same? How might an activity that illuminates the vast differences in our perspectives serve to create a foundation of understanding, and empathy? How might such a foundation make the ways in which we need to differentiate and adapt our instruction more clear? 

This simple activity will provide answers to these questions and it serves as a powerful example of the rich diversity that is present in all our ways of thinking. You can return to the structure of this activity again and again throughout the year as an introduction to different units of study – beginning your exploration with a group experience that illuminates what students are bringing to the table. 

Opening Your Mind and Getting Curious

A recent post from Jon Gruber of the Einhorn Collaborative invites us to consider the importance of "admitting incomplete knowledge" and exercising curiosity in these polarized times. Gruber writes: 
Holding particular views lightly doesn’t mean setting aside deeply held values. And recognizing how confirmation bias constricts our thinking isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s being clear-eyed about our innate wiring and the gaps in our knowledge. Dialing down certainty makes it easier to open up to alternative perspectives and fresh evidence. Taking in new ideas and data may not always lead us to revise our beliefs. Yet it invites us to adopt a growth mindset about knowledge—to see it as in-process rather than fixed. And when we do update—or even set aside—beliefs in response to new learning, that’s a sign of flexibility and discernment, not fickleness.

Join us for our October Inspired Teaching Institutes! 

TEACHERS AND PARENTS will learn about, practice with, and strengthen the skills of improvisation that can be tremendously helpful when navigating the unknown. Together we'll increase our "uncertainty tolerance" while maintaining a laser-like focus on centering children's joy and engagement.

This month we will explore:

  • "When the Opposite Is Also True"
  • Learning how to manage what is and isn't in our control
  • Questioning as a tool for developing flexible thinking
DC Public School teachers can get PLUs through the Washington Teachers' Union for participation. Thanks to the generosity of our donor community, Institutes are free for all participants. 
Register for October's ONLINE Institute 10/13 7-9 PM ET
Register for October's IN-PERSON Institute 10/16 10 AM - 12 PM ET
Download a Calendar of Our Monthly Institutes

Help Spread the Word: Speak Truth 10/7 6 PM ET

Registration is now open for high school students wishing to participate in our next Speak Truth session on October 7. The topic "Society's Deleterious Impact On Some African Americans' Intracultural Behavior" is chosen by the student facilitator who will lead the discussion. The conversation is always thought-provoking and DC students can get community service hours for participation. Learn more here
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