Provocation at Challenge Partners Conference

Blackpool, October 2016

What is more important: developing curiosity or measurable academic progress?

I think we all agree that developing curiosity is important. Today I’m going to persuade you that there are at least two manageable opportunities to do this in your current situation.

I could stand here today and quote Einstein at you, and many other people who have said fascinating things about curiosity, but you can Google that. I could stand here today and tell you the results of the recent research using MRI scans. But again you can look that up – watch a TED talk. So in these few minutes today I want to say something to you which you won’t find on the Internet, and that is my experience, my experience that is possible to nurture curiosity in the current pressurised UK school system. It’s not easy and the stark reality is that today in most schools and most classrooms curiosity is indeed a very rare thing. But that is most schools, most ordinary schools. And I believe you are here today because you don’t want to be that. You want to be something better.

Your first opportunity is to ensure your team genuinely value pupil ideas. You may say they do. Sadly, research shows year after year that teachers dominate classroom talk and pupils are very rarely given time to think, very rarely given time to ask questions. Time to think, and time to try out ideas, is time to experience curiosity. If we give our pupils this, if we truly value their explanations, opinions and reasoning we will experience a shift. A very positive shift. But let’s be clear, it won’t happen by chance. Yes, it is something that your best teachers probably do naturally, but most teachers will need guidance and support to achieve productive pupil talk and deep dialogue. It is worth it - it affects learning in every area of the curriculum. It changes teachers. It changes pupils. It will change your classrooms, it will change your school (it will probably also change your results!). The difference between asking a plethora of recall questions and listening to a few reliable speakers give the correct answer (this is – research shows again and again – the most common type of talk in classrooms) vs a genuine dialogue with full engagement from all pupils… Which do you want in your schools?

Your second opportunity: incorporate some enquiry-based learning into your curriculum. We urgently need to make and protect space for developing curiosity in our students.  An easy, effective way to do this is through P4C – philosophy for children. If you introduce P4C carefully and systematically you’ll quickly see the benefits.  EEF research

There are numerous other models of enquiry based learning. At Forest School for example I have seen children who didn’t used to speak start to speak, children who were disengaged become engaged, children who were passive become active, children who were followers become leaders. And these changes, if you’re wondering, did transfer back into the classroom.

We are here today because we all want the same thing: better life chances for our children.

However, if we prioritise measuring academic progress, we will restrict our children’s development. If we prioritise data over learning, we will stifle our children’s progress. If we prioritise teaching children to pass tests above teaching them to be curious about the world, we will limit their future potential. Take a moment to think how much time and energy we spend measuring and desperately trying to evidence academic progress.

Is this really the best use of so much of our time?

Instead we could be using some of that time to spark curiosity. If we prioritise curiosity, if we encourage it, nurture it, model it… Then, and only then will we be fulfilling our responsibility as educators of the next generation.

I would like to end with a call to action. I’m not telling you to throw away your assessment grids. I am asking you to do two manageable things. ONE:  Make some space to train your teachers to deepen dialogue and genuinely listen to your pupils. TWO:  Make some space for enquiry-based learning, be it Philosophy for Children, Forest School or something else. For, if we do nothing, we will breed indifference and disinterest among our students. Let’s not leave the development of curiosity to chance.