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Curiouser and Curiouser

While serving one ill-fated year as a New York City public school teacher, I heard talk about turning students into life-long learners, educating the “whole child,” and building “young leaders.” Despite these lofty goals, at the end of the day the administration wanted quantifiable results: test scores needed to be raised, skills built, and facts drilled into kids’ heads. The system saw students less as active, creative intellects and more as glorified computational devices — regurgitation machines.

Having worked in the corporate media world prior to teaching, I saw light-years between how I problem-solved as a successful professional and how my students were expected to problem-solve in their assessment-driven educational system. Rarely did teachers encourage imagination, creative collaboration, or risk-taking, perhaps because these attitudes prove difficult to measure with any clarity. This is unfortunate, because in this day and age — with technology advancing in leaps and bounds — versatile thinking is a must for success.

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So, what can parents do to cultivate this mindset in their children? Computer scientist Jonathan Mugan provides tips in his book, The Curiosity Cycle: Preparing Your Child for the Ongoing Technological Explosion. While working to program a computer to “think” flexibly, Mugan developed a model of how young children learn. According to him, kids first observe and form an idea about how something works, and then they test their theory until they’re sure it’s accurate, tweaking it along the way.

We’ve all seen the baby who tosses her cup full of food from her highchair to the floor. She’s forming a basic understanding of gravity, and it might take her a few, perhaps hundreds, of throws until she’s satisfied she’s got it. (She may be testing other things as well — like your patience.) As the child grows older, the amount of testing decreases as she builds upon concepts already encountered. For many, this process all but stops — like the older person who just doesn’t understand some new-fangled device or fashion.

Plus, with the “technological explosion” of handheld computers, military drones, and self-driving cars, Mugan asserts it’s more important than ever to raise curious, technologically-savvy children. And there should be no doubt he’s correct. The world will only become a more complex place technology-wise, and our children will need to know how to interact with it while still remaining free-thinking, active members of society. Mugan maps out seven concrete tactics parents can take to encourage their child’s natural curiosity and ensure they don’t lose their desire to learn:

Model active learning yourself: Be excited about new ideas. As Mugan advises, “Ask deep questions.” Turn your child’s question around — when he asks, “Why is the sky blue?” reply, “What do you think?” Don’t simply supply your child with facts, but bandy about ideas for a while, letting his creativity flourish.

Admit when you don’t know something
Make predictions, and brainstorm ideas for why things are the way they are. It’s okay to admit you don’t know something, or that something you thought true turns out to be wrong. Acknowledge your error and move on. Better still, discuss why you were mistaken.

Show rather than tell
When explaining fractions, use pizza. When learning about punctuation, illustrate how commas and periods help us read a sentence aloud and understand its meaning. Show that the ideas we learn in school really matter in how we communicate with one another and understand the world.

Use props
Memorizing sequences like the multiplication table may come easier when the child actually understands what multiplication is, something you can demonstrate using groups of objects. Though learning often seems like regurgitation, it never is — there’s always some reason we’re being taught the skill. Whenever possible, draw out the big idea and make it clear for your child. For example, counting candy or toys by twos or threes can help show your child how the concept of multiplication can be applied to real life.

Ask lots of questions of your child: questions that have specific answers
When your child wants something — blueberries, say — ask “How many?” Don’t give vague estimations like “We’ll go soon.” Be specific: “We’ll go in fifteen minutes.” Let this kind of statement lead to a discussion about telling time. There are countless opportunities during the day to transform your child’s wondering about the world into a quest to find a specific answer.

Break large tasks into smaller ones
Demonstrate how cleaning a room is in fact a series of tiny tasks: making the bed, straightening shelves, picking up dirty clothes, etc. If they’re daunted by putting away a huge pile of things, show your children how to take large groups of things like toys and organize them in piles of five or ten to estimate how many there are total — this can break down a bigger challenge into smaller, manageable tasks. Show your child that no question or problem is too big to tackle; it may just take time and tenacity.

Expose your child to technology, within limits
Sometimes, this doesn’t even involve booting up the computer: a game of twenty questions hones a child’s ability to perform online searches. There are numerous kid-friendly apps for smart phones, and for the more tech-savvy, MIT’s created a kid-friendly programming language called Scratch that sharpens children’s ability to think in abstractions and reason logically. If the thought of computer programming induces a cold sweat, don’t worry. Simply sitting with your child, for short periods of time, and helping them use technology smartly — to discover new information, to play actively with programs — is beneficial.

Overall, remember that you can’t teach your child to be curious about the world or think actively, at least not in one lesson — but approaching life in this new way with your child will allow parents to cultivate and encourage a curious, problem-solving mindset that will help children succeed.

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