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Habits of mind: Curiosity

posted: 5.11.12 by archived

The end of the semester brings a predictable series of emotions: from excitement about the semester to come, to frustration and exhaustion as I respond to a deluge of late papers, and finally, if all goes well, surprise of satisfaction at the work my students end up collecting in their portfolios. Right now, though, I’m at glum. In chance meetings with the colleagues with whom I dare to be frank, we compare our students’ projected completion rates. I’m realizing this semester how much the issue is not my students’ lack of writing skills but rather something deeper that underlies their ability to get writing projects started and completed.

I’ve been thinking a lot, again, about that WPA/NCTE/NWP document “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” that lists these eight habits of mind as crucial: curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition. I’m starting to see this not as a wish list or a series of prerequisites but rather as my agenda: to foster these habits of mind through more explicit discussion, through modeling, and through the design of my assignments.

So I’ve been thinking about organizing my next iteration of first-year comp around these habits of mind, starting with curiosity. I’ve written before Bruce Ballenger’s Myth of the Boring Topic and Larry Weinstein’s list of Fifty-seven difficult questions. I just ran across Chris Anderson’s inaugural video for the new TED Ed site, Questions No One Knows the Answers To, which would be worth a quick viewing as a conversation starter. Another, more concrete way to begin might be asking students to bring in objects for a show-and-ask questions session, to see what sort of questions even very simple objects might elicit (cf. Henry Petrosky on the toothpick, Colin McSwiggen’s recent meditation “Against Chairs”, any of Nicholson Baker’s loving descriptions of staplers or drinking straws or paper towels).

The first few weeks of class could be a time of collecting up questions: expeditions across campus of not fact-finding but question-finding; my own accounts of what’s stimulated my own curiosity (such as my recent walk through the Fens in Boston that sent me to asking questions about the community gardens there, which sent me to looking through their website); clippings and notes of things students see and hear that make them ask their own questions.  We’d collect up these questions in some online space, as a way to storehouse thinking and writing and researching possibilities. (I’m shifting from glum to my predictable stage of romantic idealism, anticipating the fresh new batch of summer-school students who will meet my gaze come the first week of June.)

I’ve collected up some raw materials that I might share and ask students to supplement: quotes about curiosity (its cat-killing powers); curious characters in stories and myth, such as Eve and Pandora, Curious George and Harriet the Spy; models of curiosity, such as three-year olds and scientists and journalists. This could be a low-stakes way to start talking about the research process, as we set out to find deeper information about these curious folks.

For a personal essay assignment, I might ask students to describe an episode of curiosity in their own life and how they satisfied it or what prevented them from satisfying it. (How is curiosity like and unlike hunger, I would ask.) I would tell about a central curiosity from my own life, to try to understand my mother, and how I’ve approached that mystery through thinking and imagining and writing. Once we’ve collected up some of these curiosity-narratives, we would read over each other’s stories to try to classify and generalize, to make some discoveries about the nature of curiosity and how it gets nurtured or deadened.

There’s not time in one semester, of course, to go through the other seven habits of mind, but I’ve settled on two others that I’d also like to consider. To partner with curiosity (the invention stage of writing), I’d add in creativity (the composing process) and persistence (the revision stage), which I’ll tackle in my next two blog posts.

Do these habits of mind play an important role in your teaching? If so, I’d love to hear whether you explicitly discuss them with student and how you integrate them into the classroom and into assignment design.

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