learning

Measuring Curiosity & Creativity in India

Many educational organizations want to know their impact in terms of test scores and quantitative metrics. I’m more more interested in the qualitative. Are children learning? Are they curious? Are they creative? Are they solving problems that matter to them?

In January I spent three weeks at the Agastya International Foundation, near Bangalore, India, observing educational programs designed to increase children’s curiosity and creativity via STEM. The government (public) schools in India are eager for supplemental science and math curriculum, which is how Agastya gets in. They send tens of thousands of teachers around the country in vans filled with science experiments with the aim of “sparking curiosity” through hands-on learning during science and math lessons.  

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Hamsa Latha, who leads the Impact Assessment team at Agastya, is seeking to assess the change in students’ curiosity after being exposed to Agastya’s hands-on science learning. Hamsa and her team have designed questionnaires for students before and after engaging in an Agastya program to see if they become more curious, more creative, more interested in the natural world. Last year they assessed 66,515 middle school students in 1,697 schools.  They found that on the whole, after completing an Agastya program, students believed that they learn best through hands-on experiments and model-making. Overall students showed 10-15% increases in awareness (of science in the world), curiosity, confidence and science knowledge. This impressive study is one of few being done in the education sector focused on traits and habits of learning rather than solely on content.

The Innovation Hub, one of many programs on the Agastya campus, focuses on how students learn, not just what. The aim is on solving community problems using technology, teamwork and innovation. Groups of students are led through a series of workshops that help them identify and rectify community problems, using a project-based learning approach. One of the brilliant innovations the children came up with is to  add pictorial symbols to village names to help illiterate family members know when to get off the bus. Another innovation deals with walking home from school in the dark and needing your hands to hold siblings hands, groceries, and books. Instead of also trying to hold a flashlight to be able to light the way, students created LED strips for backpack straps so that you’d have a hands free way of seeing if you’re about to step on a snake. It is projects like these that not only impact communities, but also teach children a way of learning. Children who complete a program at the Innovation Hub move through the world with the tools to change their world.

The Art Lab, another innovative program at Agastya, is designed as a journey of observation and imagination using nature at the medium. Students begin by drawing their idea of a tree and then spend days outside talking about the tree and what they see and notice. Who lives there? How does it change? What textures are evident? What shades and tints of colors are present? How does it move? What can and can’t you see? Students then make another drawing and compare the image in their mind with the one they’ve observed. The unit finishes with students designing their own trees, using creativity and imagination. Other units repeat this process with leaves, the sky, and animals. Through this process students really learn to see and observe. They begin to understand nature. They are learning how to learn.

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Sometimes in education we spend so much time focusing on content and forget to think about the process of learning and providing experiences for students to figure out how they learn best. By trying different methods like hands-on science experiments, solving community problems, and closely observing nature, Agastya has achieved their mission. Curiosity has been sparked.

What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning?

My friend called to say she’s going to start teaching her 4 year-old ‘pre-K stuff’ because he’s not ‘getting it’ at school. His school day and his teachers are focused on playing and being outdoors and they aren’t as academically centered as her daughter’s pre-K experience. Her daughter knew ‘everything’ before entering kindergarten. She is fearful for her son. School is not such fun for him and he still lacks the ability to count a set of objects or recognize all numbers and letters. She is seriously thinking about doing fun activities and playing games with him at home to get him ready for kindergarten. She called to ask my advice.

From my observations of pre-K through 2nd grade classrooms around the US and world, there is significantly too much focus on the academics and not nearly enough time to value children’s learning through play and exploration of their environment. It sounds like his pre-K teachers are ballsy and I admire them.

This is my counsel to my friend:

1.     YOUR CHILDREN LEARN DIFFERENTLY.
2.     What’s being taught in pre-K to 2nd grade is not developmentally appropriate. Until you turn 8, those things we call “academics” don’t mean much to you; you aren’t feeling a need for them in your daily life. Plus the same things are taught year to year, so IF YOUR KID ISN’T READY FOR IT NOW, IT’S COOL, THEY’LL BE EXPOSED TO IT AGAIN NEXT YEAR. 
3.     TELL YOUR KID IT’S OK IF HE DOESN’T GET EVERYTHING RIGHT AWAY. Explain that people learn things at different ages and it’s OK if he’s not great at it now.
4.     TELL HIM IF THERE IS SOMETHING HE WANTS TO LEARN, OR GET BETTER AT, HE CAN ASK YOU FOR HELP. This is not obvious to your child. This will plant a seed to help him become a learner, know what he can do if he’s passionate and wants more of something, and create his own process for seeking information.
5.     No matter how much fun you try to make formal learning at home, it will probably feel like ‘school’ to your kid and make him not enjoy learning as much. Since it isn’t really appropriate that he master all of these things this year, then it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that he GROW TO LOVE LEARNING. That should be your goal, not hitting school benchmarks.
6.     What we should be looking at, then, is: What are his friendships like? What activities is he drawn to? What does he talk about more in school? At home? NURTURE THOSE THINGS. 
Yes, there are options of other kinds of schools you could send your kid to. And yes, a revolution in schooling is on the way, but in the meantime, HELP YOUR KIDS NAVIGATE THIS WONKY SYSTEM!
Show your children how you are a learner. Do you do an internet search first when you want to know something? Do you read a book dedicated to it from the NYT best seller list? Do you call an expert friend and ask their opinion?
Ask your children questions, serious questions, in discussion of things they bring up, like:
TOYS/GAMES/ACTIVITIES: What makes you happy about playing like this? What are you imagining when you’re playing? Is there anything you don’t like about it? How would you change it?
IDEAS/ABSTRACT/PHILOSOPHICAL: Speak like you would to a friend or peer. Ask the same kinds of questions. If your kid doesn’t have answer just keep going. Talk. Listen.


What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning? 

What if all learning experiences “counted?”

I am sitting in the lush forests on Kauai, Hawaii, after several days of hiking up to mountain ridges and walking along narrow pathways to glorious ocean vistas. On the hikes I am sharpening so many skills - balancing my weight, navigating though a variety of terrains (sometimes quite slippery), and making innumerable snap decisions regarding safety and exploration. I stop often to admire details of the flora and fauna - touching, smelling, and comparing. The moss is tremendous. I am constantly astounded by the variety and texture. The rocks, too, many which have bits of lava from different stages of volcanic eruption within them, are exceptional and though they look strong, easily crumble in my fingers.

I am learning about myself too - endurance, strength, preparedness with food and water, how to protect myself from the elements with minimal gear, and to remind myself to look up from the path and admire my surroundings. 

I knew from an early age that what I learned and sought outside of school was just as valuable, and sometimes more so, than what I was learning in school. In my senior year of high school I created a half-day internship for myself at an educational television show. It was there that I learned about public speaking, speaking professionally, how to develop relationships with co-workers, how to do specific and detailed research for on-air deadlines, how to produce a television show, how to splice tape and create pre-recorded segments, and the list goes on. 

In 1999 I began attending one of only a handful of co-op universities in the US, which offer programs that are half academic, half real-world work experience. When I began as a freshman at Northeastern University, I was most excited about the yearlong schedule: 6 months of classes split up into two, 3-month semesters, and then 6 months of working in the field of my major or one I might be interested in. Within these paid internships I was able to work in a variety of departments to understand each field. At a PR firm I did cold calls for our database, spent a few days with the bookkeeping team, sat in on meetings, shadowed an executive for a day, and learned the culture of the organization. At a pop-rock radio station I worked in several departments each for a week at a time: music, promotions, news, and the office. These experiences gave me the perspective of work-culture, what it means to be proactive, how to show you’ve learned something by applying it appropriately, and, maybe most importantly, how to sell myself. Tailoring a resume, writing a cover letter, and going on an interview were things I began to just know how to do, and they set me apart from other recent graduates. 

Emily Rapport, in her opinion piece for edSurge titled Why Course Credits Don’t Reflect What I Learn, explains as a current undergrad how the learning experiences she pursues outside of her classes are offering her more learning and skills that apply to her interests and passions than the learning and skills she is getting from her classes. More so she is pushing that these out-of-class learning experiences be credited, acknowledged, and appreciated by her university. These experiences are clearly what her future employers will value. 

She offers some solutions: 

1. “Introduce experiential learning frameworks into students’ first-year experiences.” Teach students to reflect on all of their learning experiences and value them as such. 

2. “Create courses that use students’ outside-the-classroom experiences as texts.” Classes that apply theory to required internships and community service projects. 

3. “Structure an undergraduate experience so that it moves from classroom to “real world,” with opportunities for student-driven capstones other than academic theses.” Allow students alternatives to a thesis to apply their skills before graduation and as their requirement for graduation. 

I am a huge fan of, not just talking but, taking action. It is one thing to privately value the variety of your life experiences, knowing you are using them and getting the most you can from them, and it takes those experiences to a whole new level to advocate for their legitimacy in the academic world. 

Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there.”

So what if all learning experiences “counted?” 

What if instead of just talking about Social Emotional Learning, we restructured all of the ways children learn to include adults who are trained in developing these skills?

Donna Housman, EdD, clinical psychologist and founder, CEO, and president of Beginnings School, the ONLY PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY that has developed a comprehensive curriculum around self-regulation, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, discusses the reasons children need to learn these skills before they turn 4 years old as well as how their learning and social development are compromised without these skills.

It seems obvious; when you feel good about yourself and your relationships and can listen, process, and communicate your ideas, then you are open to more challenging tasks and learning. In other words, when children are not preoccupied or worried about their most basic emotional needs, they can flourish.


This is not new information. There is just more and more research pouring out of school-laboratories, graduate programs, psychological case studies, and comparisons of educational models worldwide. So why aren’t we changing what pre-school looks like in light of this information? Why aren’t we offering classes, workshops, and training to new parents around developing these skills in the first three years of a child’s life? Why aren’t nanny agencies picking up on this and offering trained SEL professionals to spend time with your young children? Why aren’t graduate schools offering Masters in Early Childhood Education focusing on Social Emotional Learning? With all of this research why is there only ONE PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY implementing this curriculum?

What if school was playing in a forest all day?

School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten (trailer)

This film looks amazing. These kids play in nature, learn through exploring, and are learning to learn! 

What if life skills were taught in school?

Suggestions from Sara Boboltz, in 7 Things We Should Start Teaching In Schools ASAP:

1. Taxes
2. Budgeting and finance
3. Computer coding
4. Emergency medical training
5. No-bullshit sex ed
6. Cover letters and resumes
7. Sustainable living
Bonus: Splitting checks at a restaurant

What if children explored some dangerous activities and instead of stopping them we joined them?

From the authors:

Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) is the first book from the people who created Tinkering School. With projects, activities, experiences, and skills ranging from “Superglue Your Fingers Together” to “Play with Fire,” along with 48 other great ideas, the book is a manifesto for kids and parents alike to reclaim childhood. Easy to follow instructions, fun facts, and challenging undertakings that will engage and inspire whole households.

Why Fifty Dangerous Things? First off, Five Dangerous Things just weren’t enough (although the audience at TED thought it was a good starting point). More importantly, there are many “dangerous” things that are interesting, eye-opening, enlightening or just plain fun! And while there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger. Most of us learn how to walk without toppling over at a very young age, so that walking is no longer dangerous. Next we learn to negotiate stairs. Why stop there? Why not practice and become proficient at walking on the roof or walking on a tightrope? These are just a few of the Fifty Dangerous Things that we invite you to try.

What if half of the school day was outside play?

It's great to give students movement breaks, stay 5-minutes longer at recess, and even have standing desks, but Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, reminds us that children need to move. They need to develop body awareness, which inevitable improves learning. All of our systems are connected, remember? They all need to be nourished, and not just for a few extra minutes.

She writes:

In order to create actual changes to the sensory system that results in improved attention over time,  children NEED to experience what we call “rapid vestibular (balance) input” on a daily basis. In other words, they need to go upside down, spin in circles, and roll down hills. They need authentic play experiences that get them moving in all different directions in order to stimulate the little hair cells found in the vestibular complex (located in the inner ear). If children do this on a regular basis and for a significant amount of time, then (and only then) will they experience the necessary changes needed to effectively develop the balance system–leading to better attention and learning in the classroom.

So, what if half of the school day was outside play? 

What if we let children use knives and other sharp tools?

Reasons to give your child a kitchen knife (and teach them how to use it), which I agree with for the same reasons, from the following article:

1. Independence
2. Invested in food
3. It's what we used to do as a civilization! (We already know it can be done safely, you don't hear about accidental kitchen accidents among children from the 1800s).
4. Trust
5. Taking risks and learning consequences
6. Pride 

What if, instead of disciplining children, we helped them find the root of the problem?

I've been a big fan of Dr. Ross Greene for years. He teaches parents and teachers to talk with children about their feelings and experiences to solve problems collaboratively, eventually leading to self-regulation. This is instead of punishment and consequence that we see in many schools and homes, which address behavior but don't get to the root of the problem, and often make children feel bad about not being in control of their behavior. Instead, as Dr. Greene says, let's teach children to recognize their emotions and control their behavior. Habit begets habit, you know? What if adults could also do this? Wouldn't that be something? I know too many adults who have difficulty controlling their emotions and consequently act poorly.

What if we all had emotional self-intelligence? 


This article explains the effectiveness of Dr. Greene's approach with regard to teacher training, prison recidivism rates, and behaviorally-struggling children. The following are the highlights:

University of Rochester psychologist Ed Deci, for example, found that teachers who aim to control students' behavior—rather than helping them control it themselves—undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a capacity to relate to others. This, in turn, means they have a harder time learning self-control, an essential skill for long-term success. 

Stanford University's Carol Dweck, a developmental and social psychologist, has demonstrated that even rewards—gold stars and the like—can erode children's motivation and performance by shifting the focus to what the teacher thinks, rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning.

You'd talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

If Greene's approach is correct, then the educators who continue to argue over the appropriate balance of incentives and consequences may be debating the wrong thing entirely. After all, what good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn't yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?

The CPS (Collaborative and Proactive Solutions) method hinges on training school (or prison or psych clinic) staff to nurture strong relationships—especially with the most disruptive kids—and to give kids a central role in solving their own problems. For instance, a teacher might see a challenging child dawdling on a worksheet and assume he's being defiant, when in fact the kid is just hungry. A snack solves the problem.

The teachers and the student would come up with a plan to slowly get him more involved.

From Greene's perspective, that's the big win—not just to fix kids' behavior problems, but to set them up for success on their own. Too many educators, he believes, fixate on a child's problems outside of school walls—a turbulent home, a violent neighborhood—rather than focus on the difference the school can make. "Whatever he's going home to, you can do the kid a heck of a lot of good six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year," Greene says. "We tie our hands behind our backs when we focus primarily on things about which we can do nothing."

Dr. Ross Greene's website: http://www.livesinthebalance.org/
Great books by Dr. Greene: The Explosive Child, Lost at School