Sunday, February 2, 2014

Curiosity, Engagement, and (No) Tech

Back at the end of last school year, the smaller learning community that I am a part of at Hillsdale High School decided to embark on a mission to improve the quality of talk in our classrooms. We did a book study last summer and came in this year ready to have conversations about how to increase the quality of discussions in our classrooms.

As we've met over the course of this school year, we've had some fascinating conversations around talk. These conversations have slowly evolved over time. Subtly, our shared conversation has shifted into a discussion of engagement and curiosity in the classroom. It wasn't a choice any of us made, it has just been where the conversation has flowed naturally.

The conversations have been fascinating. We haven't really come to tangible conclusions (yet!) but I leave these meetings feeling stimulated and left with ideas to chew on.

The most recent distinction we've made is one between curiosity and engagement. My English colleague is currently preparing our shared students for the California high school exit exam (CAHSEE). Not the most exciting material. However, in an effort to build engagement about rules of punctuation, she showed up dressed as a pirate for a few days last week. Engagement was built. But as she correctly pointed out, hokey tricks like this build engagement - which is good - but don't necessarily create curiosity.

So then. Curiosity. And the point of all of this.

Curiosity is that classroom magic: kids drive the conversation with their questions, questions they legitimately want answers to. Tangents are taken, dead ends are run down, and class flies by. Agendas go out the window: let's figure out the answers that kids want!

My kids spent last semester working with me in a 1:1 classroom - my first semester on a 1;1 environment. We learned a lot as I attempted to modify and redefine what a world history class could be in a 1:1 environment. Kids were engaged and at times curious as they had freedom to direct their own learning.

Fast forward to this semester. We just finished the fourth week of school. We're working on a department created portfolio task that looks into why Afghanistan is the way it is today. With the exception of 20% time which is still every Friday, my kids haven't touched the Chromebooks in class this semester. At all.

And the level of engagement is as high as I've ever seen it.

Why? The subject material is stimulating: Afghanistan's history is as complex as any country I've learned about. We're working with fascinating primary and secondary sources on a daily basis. And the kids are into it!

So what? What's the takeaway? I don't need tech to spark curiosity. Can it help? Sure. When kids have choice in their learning, curiosity has a chance to shine through. But a well-designed unit (this unit has been created by seven teachers - #BetterTogether!) with no tech and no choice over content can engage the heck out of kids.

And even though I intuitively knew this, it's easy to forget the power of a well-designed no tech unit, especially in a year where I have been working hard to intentionally integrate technology.