The role of teachers as a catalyst for curiosity

This week I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down and have a fascinating talk with Dr Stephen Whitehead, co-creator of EDDi. We spoke about a range of issues currently facing the world of international schooling, and also discussed our backgrounds in Higher Education. One thing that Stephen said that really stood out to me, was the idea that people can often act as a catalyst for the progress of others. Sometimes people can come into our lives (or we may go into theirs) and, for whatever reason, this can act as a source of inspiration or motivation that shifts our mindset and our actions. 

The idea that meeting people at the right place or time can act as a springboard or ‘catalyst’ for change has always been something that has particularly excited me about Higher Education. 

Perhaps it’s a lecture that strikes a chord with you and inspires your final year project, a meeting you have with a professor, during which they recommend a book that feeds your curiosity and plants a seed that influences your career trajectory, or the discussion you have with a tutor which helps you to realise your innate research and writing skills, and spurs you into taking a new professional direction. 

This is something special.

A problem that I often notice exists within secondary education is the lack of space for teachers to act as a ‘catalyst’ for our students. This is not to say that this doesn’t ever happen, but in my opinion the performative nature of compulsory education, and the constraining nature of most school qualifications, can often lead to two problems; (1) time restraints that result in us prioritising content over curiosity, and (2) the performative nature of exams shifting our focus to ‘fixing’ students in order to ensure that they pass their assessments.

Post-16 qualifications often feel like a perfect time to start cultivating curiosity… students are starting to narrow their focus and tend to be more motivated. But when the opportunities afforded to students in terms of university and work are constrained considerably by their academic performance, teachers can be left hamstrung. If students are not performing well, then it is often the job of teachers (and sometimes support staff) to ‘fix’ this. 

This ‘fixing’ and focus on helping students to move up grade boundaries is constraining for us as teachers. It can cause us to focus on the shortcomings of students, and attach a personal element to failure (‘you’ are failing, ‘you’ are not where you need to be). Whilst not without its flaws, what I feel Higher Education does particularly well is to reward curiosity and provide space to allow educators to focus on helping guide the student to who they could be, rather than focusing on how they are performing right now. 

For those of us working in international schools, often within the constraints of relatively rigid educational systems, how can we take a step back and find a way to cultivate curiosity? How can we fight the urge to ‘fix’ and find a way to catalyse?

Depending on the philosophy of the school you are in, it may not be easy to make these changes. But I believe it can be done. As teachers, we can be deliberate about not merely focusing on results, but also guiding our students towards their strengths. We can create space that allows us, and our students, to break from prescribed content by, for example, sharing a video or resource about current issues related to our subject. We can find and share books or articles with our students that are personalised to their own interests within the subject area. We can find a way to challenge their (and our) preoccupation with exam content, in such a way that still moves them forward in the right direction.

If the goal of education is to create sustainable curiosity, then we must seek to be catalysts for our students, inspiring and guiding them to become the people we know they can be in the future. 

4 thoughts on “The role of teachers as a catalyst for curiosity

  1. The pressure of time restraints and standardized testing are real and do limit opportunities to develop curiosity. But, educators must cultivate curiosity all the way through learning progressions. Young children enter schools bursting with curiosity exhibited by the insane number of questions they have about . . . everything. Slowly but surely, creativity and curiosity are expunged from their memory and ongoing learning experiences. Perhaps, a small amount of curiosity is allowed, but within the prescribed curriculum. We can’t wait for the post-16 experience to re-start the curiosity engine. Yes, let’s be catalysts and encourage (and support) learners to follow passions. And let’s lend our voices to push back against archaic timetables, curriculum, and testing regimes that limit schooling in many ways.

    1. Hi Brad, thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I completely agree with you that it is important to use our voices and push back against educational systems that limit the space and light to allow curiosity to grow freely. In terms of the post-16 aspect, my observations are predominantly based around my experience working with students at the upper end of secondary school. The British schooling system, in my opinion, very much lends itself to the type of mentorship that is commonplace in higher education. It’s not to say that I don’t believe curiosity shouldn’t be cultivated earlier, but more that students at this key transition period start to really focus on the things that they might then go on to do in their career. The growing maturity that I see in students as they move into A Levels and the realisation that what they do during this time is really building towards the types of jobs and careers that they will be going on to makes it a particularly pivotal time for them, during which our attempts as teachers to cultivate their curiosity can become more targeted. Really interesting to hear your thoughts Brad and would love to discuss this more with you.

  2. Thank you for sharing these thoughts and being a “catalyst” for others to think how this can fit in with their roles within education.

    1. Thanks Chris – meeting and speaking with you around ideas to do with wellbeing and international schools has certainly been a catalyst for me 🙂 I hope all is well! Sadie

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