A faculty development colleague of mine often reminds us in meetings and workshops that we don't teach the students we want. We teach the students we get. By this he means it's no use bewailing the levels of preparedness we find in our classrooms. Indeed, it should come as no surprise to us that we face these challenges. Anyone passingly familiar with the recent trends in higher education should be well aware that preparedness shortfalls are the norm. Here are just a few tidbits from the 2018 data:
- The percentage of students meeting at least three of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in the four core subject areas was 38% for the 2018 US high school graduating class.
- Thirty-five percent of 2018 graduates met none of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 31% in 2014 and from 33% last year.
- Readiness levels in math and English have steadily declined since 2014.
- Readiness levels in reading and science have varied over the past five years, with no clear upward or downward trends.
These are depressing statistics, no doubt, but I made my peace with them a long time ago. I simply remind myself that my students aren't broken. They're just under-prepared and that's a situation I can address by changing my approach to teaching. In the end, my students are every bit as capable of thinking and learning as the those who walk into my classroom fully prepared. In some ways they are better off because they haven't acquired the strategic learning approach that is too often adopted by kids who've aimed themselves at college like guided missiles. When it clicks for an under-prepared student, it really clicks (and it's also really gratifying).
But there is one readiness quality lacking in students that does not show up in the data: curiosity. Or maybe I should rephrase that. What's missing is not curiosity; it's the ability to arouse their own curiosity. Because--let's face it--human beings are naturally curious under the right circumstances. Anyone awaiting the arrival of a blind date or the reading of a rich uncle's will be plenty curious. Even so, the ability to move oneself deliberately from incurious to curious is an extremely rare trait among students (and maybe even people in general).
Too, too many years ago I earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and perhaps the most important thing I took from the experience was the ability to manufacture my own curiosity. Reporters have to acquire this skill because they are assigned to talk to all kinds of people about all kinds of things. Moreover, they often have little control over what stories they are assigned to cover. In order to do their job--and do it well--they need to make themselves curious. After awhile this becomes second nature. Indeed, you'll often hear good reporters say that they like their job because they get paid to satisfy their curiosity.
So here's my question: is there a way I could structure my classes so that students learn to arouse their own curiosity about subjects in which they aren't already interested?
Too often we do just the opposite. We (and I include myself here) tell students to select a topic or research question that interests them. But what if that's a mistake? After all, no prof or editor ever once told me as a J-school undergraduate to write about what I was interested in. They could have cared less about what interested me. What they wanted me to do was get interested (in the Water Board meeting, the flower show, the woman who made a macrame map of her county). "Find the story," they said. "Make me care, find out if it matters, tell me why it's interesting."
I'm not sure how I would even begin to structure an assignment or course that required students to arouse their own curiosity. Nevertheless, that's what happened as a J-school undergrad. How could I steal this approach and use it in my own teaching? Is there a way to teach students (or at least structure an experience) that would cause them awaken their own curiosity?
I don't know, but it's a really interesting question.