The Curious Classroom by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels

Curious ClassroomWhat happens when we put our students in the driver’s seat? Harvey “Smokey” Daniels says; when we let kids be curious, they dive deep. They persist longer when they’re curious. Smokey says if we can activate a student’s curiosity, they no longer need to be forced into action. So where do elementary teachers fit inquiry and curiosity into their day. How do teachers harness the power of curiosity? And how do we hand over the reins to students in a well-structured environment? 
 Smokey Daniels covers all of this and more in his newest book, The Curious Classroom: 10 Structures for Teaching with Student-Directed Inquiry.
 
We talked about this and more on today's podcast. We started out our conversation talking about why Smokey is so excited about this new book?

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See below for a full transcript of our conversation


​Smokey :    I spent the last couple of years embedded in several awesome elementary schools, and I saw such great teaching there, kids making incredible progress, leaps and bounds and gains. I just couldn't wait to get it all in a book. What I saw when I would go in those classrooms is these brilliant structures that teachers invented or created or adapted. Great time, great time use, doing things really efficiently and briskly. Kids super engaged and curiosity activated. The schools and the districts that we worked in had some good results, too. There were some good test score gains and places, and so all that put together made me just want to get that into a book. For me, The Curious Classroom really is a dream come true.

Brett:    Sometimes the inquiry can feel daunting. How is this book making getting started with inquiry easier?

Smokey :    To begin with, I think sometimes just the word inquiry is a little hard for people, it sounds kind of abstract and a little bit technical, but all it really means is posing questions and seeking answers to them, so it doesn't have to be that exotic. 
    Then, we have our own fear of losing control, that sometimes I think people make pictures in their heads of kids going wild, if they're released, to say, pursue answers to their own questions for a while. What people have to understand what the book is all about is that this is highly structured. It's very highly structured. It's a tight ship. A lot of teachers say, "Well, I run a tight ship." But it is a tight ship, but it's a different kind of ship. When we have kids buy-in, when we have their engagement, when they're committed to the process because they own the inquiry, they're participants in creating the agenda, then those problems disappear.
    We engage kids by tapping into their good old-fashioned intrinsic motivation. Our fear of losing control is sometimes overrated. All we're trying to do really here is we're trying to make school more interesting. The great thing about that is that when we do these student-directed inquiry, not only the school becomes more interesting for kids, it becomes more fun for us too, as teachers.

Brett:    How does your approach differ from other kinds of inquiry or project-based learning?

Smokey :    Right now, these days there's a resurgence of project-based learning. It's almost we call it a boom. That's great. That's great for all of us. I think people who do this work are all one family. One thing I see that makes my work different and my book is different because a lot of project-based learning that I observe around the country, not all of it, but frequently I observe that what the process is is that teachers sit down and plan a unit and it's all benchmarked and standards-based and everything else, but they plan an enormous, ambitious unit.
    Then later, they bring it to the kids and they basically march the kids through all the things that have been pre-planned. Believe me, some of the topics are glorious. The thing is kids still don't have that level of ownership, that feeling of agency that they would have had if they had created it together as a group with their teacher and their classmates. We call our approach student-directed inquiry instead of, say, project-based learning. There's a interesting shade of difference in the meaning of that. What happens in the student-directed models, then kids have to take more responsibility, they have more ownership, they have to find information, they have to winnow it, they have to vet the sources. They've got to take notes. They've got to figure out a way to share what they learned with some other people.

Brett:    Why the emphasis on curiosity?

Smokey :    For centuries, schools have been based on coercion. Teachers making kids to do stuff they don't want to do. That's where we get all these grades and rewards and gold stars and prizes and different kinds of punishments, trying to shape kids' behavior. That's what we're trying to change. We're trying to move from coercion to curiosity.
    What's so exciting is in recent years there's been this amazing research on state of mind of curiosity, and now we understand from this brain research that curiosity, literally, is a state of mind that you can attain and stay in for a while. If you're in that mind state … and you can look at the MRI's of people … it's really kind of amazing. When you're in that mind state, you focus more clearly, you look more deeply, you're more expansive in your research. You don't just notice the surfaces of things. You notice the deep structures. When you're curious, when you're in that state of mind, you persist longer, you bring more self-regulatory skills into play. All these are attributes of getting in that curious frame of mind. One of the things we see is, holy cow! If kids' curiously is activated, they don't need to be coerced. If we can make school interesting, bring kids' questions in, then all that tradition of a lot of that behavioral shaping and contention and worry and stuff goes away. We often say, "The big job of this work is to make school more interesting."

Brett:    What would you tell someone who wants to get started with inquiry?

Smokey :    I'd tell him, "Start small." That's really how the book proceeds. It's got a ladder of 10 steps, 10 different structures you can use to integrate student-directed inquiry into your class. It begins with short amounts of time and simple structures with kids and then moves on to more and more complex and challenging ones, if you want.
    For example, the first chapter in the book talks just about the teacher modeling their own curiosity, us showing kids our curious life. Talk about an easy way to begin this, you're in charge. It's you in front of the kids and you come in the class and you spend three minutes and you say, "You guys, I'm reading this unbelievable book, I'm enjoying it so much, let me read you a paragraph that really struck me last night." Or tell the kids about a project you're working on around home.
    One of the teachers in the book had terrible feet. It's the first story in the book. Megan's Terrible Feet. She tells the kids about how she's trying to rehab her feet, so she can begin running again, she's a huge athlete. The kids are fascinated, totally fascinated. Talk about an easy start. All you have to do is find two minutes, five minutes and let kids know what a curious person you are in your out of school life.
    It's so many teachers telling me is, "Once you take the risk, once you get your courage up and let kids do some posing, pursue some of their own questions, even if it only takes five or 10 minutes, what happens is then the kids come back and they prove to you how amazingly trustworthy they are." In fact, you can move from coercion to curiosity in the classroom. Again, it's the kids who prove it to us with the work they do when we trust them. 
    One more hint about getting started, I would say, find a friend. Find a colleague. In my work around the country over all these years, one other thing that I feel like I've discovered is that the voluntary outbreak of teacher collaboration, oftentimes grade level team members, but sometimes cross-grade level, when teachers partner together because they want to and because they're excited and they're into it, that's the secret sauce of school change, of school improvement. I really believe that.

Brett:    Smokey, why is inquiry good for kids?

Smokey :    In the first place, we have lots of research that shows that inquiry work for kids increases their engagement in school, raises their academic achievement and teaches them social skills that they can use throughout their life. There are a lot of benefits. Actually, a story that just happened.
    One of the schools in the book, four years ago was on probation in their state. Two years ago, after having adopted this model across the whole building, they got off probation and became a school that met expectations. Yesterday, I got a text from the principal and this year they're now listed as exceeds expectations. It's the fastest turnaround I've ever seen in a school and I've done a lot of school change work. That school is like a little rocket riding up on student-directed inquiry.

Brett:    Where does curiosity and inquiry fit into an elementary teachers' day.

Smokey:    The book offers 10 ways, 10 model for you to bring inquiry into your classroom, no matter what kind of schedule you have. Each chapter, each of those 10 chapters offers three or four different models. In all, there are 33 different specific models, step by step about how you could initiate inquiry in your classroom.
    Many teachers find time to begin with inquiry work during morning meetings. They can find a little space in there to do something small. Other teachers begin setting up a wonder wall or a question board in the classroom, where kids and the teacher can post wonderings they have as the day goes by. Some of those might be about the curricular unit we're working on right now. Some of those might just be about questions that pop up to individuals in the room. 
    Then, also then you set aside time to come back to that wonder wall at some time, maybe the end of the day, maybe Friday afternoons for 20 minutes, and then give kids a chance to briefly research the questions. Pick one off the wonder wall, something, maybe it was your burning question, or someone else's hot topic. Pick a question and spent 10 minutes or 15 minutes looking into it.
    Other teachers have found a lot of success with instituting something we call soft starts at the beginning of the day. When the kids come in, instead of just the bell rings, the teacher starts talking, they have 10 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes where, for example, they can pursue an investigation of their own, they can do independent reading. Some places teachers say they can talk quietly, but it's a soft, gentle start, as we call, helping kids find their own way into the day, instead of that jangling, harsh start.
    One of my favorite stories in the book [inaudible 00:09:26] school in Iowa, the fifth grades, there is four rooms at the end of the hall and every day when the kids come in off the bus, they come in and they throw down their backpacks and they go in these classrooms and they start dancing. They turn on loud music which the kids have picked and they dance and they do slides, they do line dances, they do … When I came in one of the kids said to the teachers, “Can we do a conga line?” This [inaudible 00:09:51] says, "Sure, you can do a conga line." 
    About eight kids grabbed each other and they snaked off in the hall and they went all around to all three other classroom, because all your friends aren't necessarily in your own homeroom. It's a greeting ritual. It sounds crazy, when you see it you go, "I don't know," but these teachers have a theory of adult development … This is actually very principal that why would we spend the whole day trying to bottle up all that energy? Kids want to say hi, they want to blow out some steam. After that, when the dancing is over, then they go into this beautiful, absolutely silent, totally focused individual work for the next 15 minutes, when kids are pursing their own research topics. It's something to see, I'll tell you.
    As the value of this kind of teaching really convinces teachers to do more, and sometimes people will start a genius hour or a genius half hour, or sometimes you pick a time during the week when kids know they're going to have some dedicated time to pursue topics of curiosity and interest to them. I'm thinking about my friend Daniel [inaudible 00:10:51] another one of the schools in the book, he's in there. They were studying immigration and one of the things he brought to prime it was the trunk his grandfather took through Ellis Island in 1929, and he opened up the trunk and in there all the paperwork, including how they changed his name. Every family story is the story of America, and the kids were blown away. It was so real.

Brett:    How does inquiry look different between primary and intermediary grades?

Smokey:    It doesn't differ that much. The pre-K's and kindergartners might not be able to write very well and there's only so much they can read, but mainly we use all the same tools and instructions at all levels. One of my favorite kindergarten stories in the book at Glenwood school, the kids were studying, in kindergarten they were studying spring. The teachers said, "Well, why don't you guys draw some pictures of spring things? What are you noticing now that's happening out around us?" And so kids started drawing spring things. One kid's drawn a bee and he hollers out, "Hey, what color are bee's wings?" Somebody says, "Yellow!" Somebody else says, "They're white." Right at this moment, the instructional coach Deb  was standing by the door and she's looking at the teacher and they're going like … silently they're going, "Should we go for this because kids are so revved up?" Deb goes, "Mm-hmm (affirmative)." The teacher goes, "mm-hmm (affirmative)."
    The coach runs upstairs and gets every bee book and every insect book she can find in the book room. She goes through people's classrooms, getting the stuff, brings it downstairs and then they have a spontaneous, on demand, one hour workshop study research event all around bees. It went on so long, the teachers later said, "We were sort of ready for it to bee over." Look what they learned. The first thing they learned a fabulous piece of tier two vocabulary, right? Transparent. They'll never forget that.
    More importantly, they spent all that time doing what researchers kindergartners would real research [inaudible 00:12:47]. Pose their question. They went out and gathered information from the books that Deb brought by. They made beautiful posters to show what they learned about bees and another insects. This is an example of what happens when we turn the reigns over to kids, when we put them in the driver's seat in a well-structured universe. They amaze us with what they can do.

 

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