User Generated Education

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The Future Belongs to the Curious: How Are We Bringing Curiosity Into School?

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What is curiosity? The word is associated with the irregular form of the Latin verb cura, which can mean worry or care about or cure. The word closest in meaning is inquisitive, which also has a Latin root: quaere, to search into, to seek. (How Can Teachers Foster Curiosity?)

Curiosity is the quest for new ideas and information. Folks who are curious aren’t satisfied with what they already know or have figured out. They go after what they don’t know or can’t understand—and that missing information can become a driving need to find out. “Curiosity’s most distinguishing characteristic is its open willingness to explore….” (Cultivating Curiosity in Our Students as a Catalyst for Learning)

The future belongs to the curious . . .


A recent research study found a connection between curiosity and deep learning:

The study revealed three major findings. First, as expected, when people were highly curious to find out the answer to a question, they were better at learning that information. More surprising, however, was that once their curiosity was aroused, they showed better learning of entirely unrelated information that they encountered but were not necessarily curious about. Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it. Second, the investigators found that when curiosity is stimulated, there is increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward.  Third, when curiosity motivated learning, there was increased activity in the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for forming new memories, as well as increased interactions between the hippocampus and the reward circuit. (How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning)

So what are we doing (or not doing) in our educational institutions to encourage and spark the curiosity of learners?

Curiosity is inherently dynamic and propulsive, not sedentary and passive. Most traditional instruction depends on the latter state and seeks to control the former. This is true especially of the interrupting student or precocious child who wanders about, ignoring the lesson while remaining intent on some mission of his or her own.

The only rational answer to the conundrum of curiosity is to disengage our educational system from standardized testing and common curricula. Curiosity does not hold up well under intense expectation. Give agency to teachers, with the explicit message to slow down and provide students time to wonder and be curious. Counter-intuitively, our role as teachers is not to provide answers. Our role is to give time and free rein to inherent curiosity and questions, and let our students exist in the heightened state of hungering for knowledge. (How Can Teachers Foster Curiosity?)

In this era of overly scripted, overly tested, overly controlled students AND teachers, there seems to be little or no room for curiosity at school. So what is the cost of curiosity-void schools?  The result , way too often, is a school culture of malaise rather than a culture of curiosity, engagement, excitement and joy for learning. Educators along with their administrators need to be agents of their own teaching and bring curiosity into their classrooms especially if they have the slightest belief that the future belongs to the curious.

What follows are some strategies for allowing curiosity to flourish in the learning environment:

  • Acknowledge and model your own curiosity as an educator.
  • Bring lots of “What ifs” into the learning environment.
  • Find out what learners wonder about.
  • Have learners develop their own curiosity-driven questions.
  • Embrace and provide the time and setting for unstructured play, exploration, tinkering (for all ages).
  • Do curiosity projects.


Acknowledge and model your own curiosity as an educator.

The first and possibly the most significant action that educators can take is tapping into the curiosity of their students is to find, embrace and use their own curiosity as an integral part of their teaching strategies.

The power of modeling and social learning cannot be overstated.

When researchers invite children into a room containing a novel object, they find that children are very attuned to the feedback of adults. When the experimenter makes encouraging faces or comments, children are more likely to explore the interesting object. Experiments I’ve done show that children show much more interest in materials when an adult visibly shows how curious he or she is about the materials. In other words, children’s curiosity can be fostered or squelched by the people they spend time with. (The Case for Curiosity)

Bring lots of “What ifs” into the learning environment.

“What ifs” are defined, in this case, as what could be, what is possible. It is about possibility thinking. “What ifs” open doors to curiosity, imagination, and divergent thinking. A classroom filed with “what ifs,” generated by both the educator and the learners, is open to all kinds of possibilities. It is not constrained by what it but is becomes a place where thinking centers on what could be.

Find out what learners wonder about.

Micheal Wesch, the acclaimed digital ethnography professor from Kansas State University, had this to say about wonder:

What is needed more than ever is to inspire our students to wonder, to nurture their appetite for curiosity, exploration, and contemplation, to help them attain an insatiable appetite to ask and pursue big, authentic, and relevant questions, so that they can harness and leverage the bounty of possibility all around us and rediscover the “end” or purpose of wonder, and stave off the historical end of wonder.

I’ve developed and implemented a What Do I Wonder About? activity that I’ve done both 1st graders, 5th graders, and even college students.  I observed 100% engagement by all aged learners. Other wonder activities can be found at 4 Ways to Cultivate a Sense of Wonder (And Why it’s Important).

Not only do activities like these assist the educator in discovering what their learners wonder about, they give learners the message that what they wonder about it important and valued.

Have learners develop their own curiosity-driven questions.

Wesch believes that a sense of wonder and curiosity is nourished by learning to ask and pursue big, authentic, and relevant questions. The great educational philosopher Paulo Freire agrees with the power of the question and its direct relationship to curiosity:

I believe in the pedagogy of curiosity. That’s why I defend the pedagogy of the question and not of the answer. The pedagogy of the question is the one that is based on curiosity. Without that pedagogy there would not be a pedagogy that augments that curiosity. (The Future of School)

There seems to be lots of educational writings about how educators can use effective questioning techniques in the classroom. But these are the questions that are of interest to the teacher; that are composed and asked by the teacher.  These questions may tap into the interests and curiosities of their learners, but they are may not. If educators really have a desire to open up the channels of curiosity in their learning environment, they will facilitate helping learners develop their own curiosity-driven questions. As I discussed in Learners Should Be Developing Their Own Essential Questions:

If the true goal of education is inspiring students with a lifelong capacity and passion for learning, it is at least as important that students be able to ask the right question as it is to know the right answer. (Learning To Ask The Right Question)

Embrace and provide the time and setting for unstructured play, exploration, tinkering (for all ages).

As formal educational settings have evolved (seems a bit like a misnomer), there has also been less time blocked off for unstructured play, exploration, and tinkering. It seems that most Kindergarten through graduate school education have added more and more instructional time during each day leaving less time to just play.

Everywhere we turn these days we find pundits and politicians arguing for more restrictive schooling. Of course they don’t use the word “restrictive,” but that’s what it amounts to. They want more standardized tests, more homework, more supervision, longer school days, longer school year. (Learning Requires Freedom)

If learners of all ages had more time to just play, then their natural curiosities would emerge:

Whatever happened to the idea that children [and the rest of us] learn through their own free play and exploration? Every serious psychological theory of learning, from Piaget’s on, posits that learning is an active process controlled by the learner, motivated by curiosity.

If we stop to think about it, that the most valuable lessons we have learned are not what we “learned in kindergarten,” nor what we learned in courses later on. They are, instead, the lessons that we learned when we allowed ourselves the luxury of following through on our own interests and our own drives to play, fully and deeply. (Learning Requires Freedom)

Do curiosity projects.

Educators can even do a guided curiosity project with their learners. If educators want more detailed directions or a template for bring a curiosity project into their classrooms, see written and implemented by Scot Hoffman.

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. — Albert Einstein

Let’s change this! Let’s bring curiosity based learning into more formal education to help learners belong in the future of curiosity.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

November 14, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Visual Note-Taking

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As should be the case, there is ongoing discussion among educators about the skills that should be taught to their learners.  One such skill is note-taking.  Note-taking is typically classified as a study skill and taught as it has been through the history of institutionalized education – the outline.

When I started researching brain-compatible learning (see neuroscientist John Medina’s Vision Trumps All Other Senses),  I was exposed to the mind-map as a tool for organization, comprehension, and note-taking.  Mind-maps have several benefits:

. . .  and according to Giulia Forsythe:

As Temple Grandin says, “the world needs all kinds of minds.” and some of those minds “think in pictures”. Doodling is a form of external thought that allows you to visualize the connections you are making while thinking. In the conscious mind, doodling can assist concentration and focus but even in the unconscious mind, while doodling and day dreaming connections are made. As Steven Johnson says, the “mind’s primordial soup” can lead to “serendipitous collisions of creative insight”. Doodling has allowed connections to be made between people and ideas, the magical space between. These aspects can lead to better problem solving. By sharing my thinking through visual means, my most important connections have been to people, by way of sharing my perceptions of their ideas, presentations and words back to them.

The purpose of this post is to encourage educators of learners of all ages to their students how to take visual notes.  By providing learners with the skills to do so, this adds choice for how they take notes and process information.  What follows are some videos and articles that provide rationale and instructional tips for visual note taking.

Additional Resources:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

September 4, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Reading: A Natural Human Phenomenon Given the Right Conditions

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The written word is a fairly new development in human evolution given the history of humankind.  Even so, it has become a common and natural way of communication for a lot of people in our current times.  School curriculum often presents reading and writing as a forced, unnatural skill to be acquired through hard work.

As an elementary student, I was required to do the requisite book reports.  I wasn’t interested in the books I was told to read.  I learned how to creatively tweak the book cover summaries to write these reports – receiving A’s and B’s for books never read.

Fast forward to 9th grade.  I don’t know how but somehow I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and was hooked into reading.  Reading became my survival to my painful and boring high school experiences.  I would bring books of my choosing into class, would hide them in the class textbooks and joyful escape into the worlds of these books.  Without any prompting or direction, I located and read many of the books by the following authors during high school (note the following are direct links to websites dedicated to that author):

Fast forward – today.  We have seen this natural drive to read by this current generation of youth through the Harry Potter and Twilight series.  I recently asked a group of about 25 sixth graders if they liked to read and received a resounding, “No!”  I then asked if they had read Harry Potter and most had.

So I get frustrated when I read about all these formalized and structured ways to teach reading (and have a gut-level, nauseous reaction to discussions around Success For All and Reading First).  I understand that many kids do not have the skills and motivation to independently locate books of personal interest, but I do believe that one of the responsibilities of educators (of all content areas) is to provide learners with reading recommendations.

This past year, I started reading YA  novels, finding them intelligent, engaging, and thought provoking.  I believe if kids are introduced to the choice menu of these and similar books, then kids will become naturally interested in reading.  Some recommendations I would offer (if I was teaching middle or high school) include:

This is just my own list.  Imagine if educators and young adults shared all of their favorite books and discussions about these books became the norm in English classes.

Technology and social networking have the potential to increase interest and engagement in learning.  A few years ago I taught gifted education for elementary students.  Philip, a charismatic and sports-driven young man, said he was not interested in reading because he did not like the books the teachers gave him to read.  I introduced the class to Shelfari.

I don’t know what it was about this Web 2.0 tool but Philip totally took off, becoming motivated to read and add books of his choosing to his Shelfari. These can be viewed at

I am waiting for the day that the guiders and managers of education realize that forced education does not become lifelong learning.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm

Junior High Technology Project

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The Junior High Technology project was developed using the following rationale:

  • Sometimes It is About the Technology: Many educators involved in educational technology believe “pedagogy before the technology.”  I agree, but sometimes it has to be about the technology.  Learners may not discover the full potential of a technology without direct instruction. There is a false belief that students, being digital natives, will intuitively learn all how the technology tools operate.   I have observed something quite different. If a student does not immediately understand the workings of a technology, he or she will quickly get frustrated and/or move to onto another. My role as a technology instructor is to know the tool and demonstrate to students how to use that tool . . . learning the tool separate from its connection to a curricular area.
  • Offering Choice of Technologies: I know that has been some questions about the existence of  learning styles, but I also know, through years of working with and observing students of all ages, that they have different needs and desires for expressing their knowledge and understanding of content and concepts. In most classes I teacher, I offer a choice menu of projects – see A Technology-Enhanced Celebration of Learning.
  • Tinkering is Important: At first I expected students to jump into their content-based project. I realized that the students needed to play with the tools to learn how they function. Now when I introduce a tool, I tell the students they can experiment with the tool, create projects on one of their hobbies and interests. Their content-related school project will come after they get the opportunity to explore and tinker with the various technologies being offered.
  • Supporting the Content Area: Educators embracing the potential of educational technology believe, as do I, that technology should be integrated into existing curriculum rather than being offered as a separate course. It is similar to teaching multicultural education and character development. These areas, like educational technology should be embedded into all curricular areas.  But, since I am a technology instructor (and like being so), I want to use technology to support the content being covered in the students’ classrooms.
  • Technology as Project-Based Learning: Along with supporting the content area, the technology project is designed to be just that – a project, one that will take several weeks to complete.
  • Addressing National Education Technology Standards: Built into the structure of the Junior High project is learning and practicing technology skills: developing innovative products and processes using technology; applying digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information; and practicing safe, legal, and responsible use of information and technology.

Idaho Content Standards Addressed


Basic Operations and Concepts

  • Students demonstrate a sound understanding of the nature and operation of technology systems.
  • Students are proficient in the use of technology.

Social, Ethical, and Human Issues

  • Students practice responsible use of technology systems, information, and software.
  • Students develop positive attitudes toward technology uses that support lifelong learning, collaboration, personal pursuits, and productivity.

Technology Productivity Tools

  • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.

Technology Communications Tools

  • Students use a variety of media and formats to communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences.

Technology Research Tools

  • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
  • Students evaluate and select new information resources and technological innovations based on the appropriateness to specific tasks.

Humanities: Visual Arts

Goal 3.1: Demonstrate skills essential to the visual arts.

Objective(s): By the end of Grade 8, the student will be able to:

  • 6-8.VA.3.1.4 Produce art that demonstrates refined observation skills from life.
  • 6-8.VA.3.1.7 Locate and use appropriate resources in order to work independently, monitoring one’s own understanding and learning needs.

Goal 3.2: Communicate through the visual arts, applying artistic concepts, knowledge, and skills.

Objective(s): By the end of Grade 8, the student will be able to:

  • 6-8.VA.3.2.2 Demonstrate the ability to utilize personal interest, current events, media or techniques as sources for expanding artwork.

Goal 3.3: Communicate through the visual arts with creative expression.

Objective(s): By the end of Grade 8, the student will be able to:

  • 6-8.VA.3.3.2 Create a work of art that expresses personal experience, opinions, and/or beliefs.
  • 6-8.VA.3.3.3 Use the creative process (brainstorm, research, rough sketch, final product) to create a work of art.

The Junior High Technology Project

General Goal:

This is a semester long project.  The goal of this project is for students to use a technology creation tool to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of one of the following content areas:

  • Digital Citizenship (Technology)
  • Universal Human Rights (2009-10 learning expedition)
  • Africa (2010-11 learning expedition)

Progression of Learning Activities

For five consecutive technology classes, students will be introduced to different Web 2.0 project creation tools – one per class:

Students will be provided with an overview, during these introductory classes, of the expectations of their assignment.

  • At least 10 facts with references about their topic.
  • At lease five live links to additional resources.
  • At least 10 copyright available images.
  • A video embedded into the presentation
  • An audio segment embedded into the presentation.

Safe and responsible internet use will be demonstrated throughout these lessons:

  • Locating appropriate information sites.
  • Judging the validity and legitimacy of a website.
  • Conducting a Google Image search using strict filtering and user rights that permit use of the image.

Beginning with the sixth technology class, students will work on their technology projects.  They will provide the teacher with the topic and the technology tool they will use for their project.  As part of this contract, students will also specify possible extra credit projects.  The expectation is that students will work on their extra credit projects in the case that they finish their project by the end of the semester.

At the time that the students select their project topic and technology tool, they will be provided with a rubric of the assignment criteria.  At the end of each class, they will be asked to write a reflective statement at the bottom of the rubric specifying progress and challenges related to the project.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

October 24, 2010 at 8:57 pm

The Scale of the Universe in the Classroom

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Student-centric learning puts the educator in the role of an ethnographer.  In the role of ethnographer, the educator studies the learners – both individually and as a group.  The educator can then offer a menu of learning activities based on what is discovered about the learners.   Because of technology and the Internet, this menu can be composed some rich and exciting learning delicacies.  The learning environment operates in a similar manner as a food cooperative (the ideals of a cooperative,

The Size of the Universe

A few years ago, I worked with gifted 3rd through 5th graders in a pull-out program.  What I learned about them, as a group, was a general attraction to science and especially, space and space exploration.  I also learned that as much as they loved technology (I had a small computer lab and integrated technology into the curriculum) that when given a choice they would choose hands-on activities over technology.  So with that in mind, we began our second year together with an activity, The Thousand Yard Model or, The Earth as a Peppercorn.

This is a classic exercise for visualizing just how BIG our Solar System really is. Both the relative size and spacing of the planets are demonstrated in this outdoor exercise, using a mere peppercorn to represent the size of the Earth.

The kids talked about this activity for the entire school year – stating it was one of the best school activities in which they had ever participated.

Now, with so many related activities online, I would have offered (and can offer future students with similar interests) the following activities as part of this learning menu:

Online Interactive

The Scale of the Universe

From the smallest possible unit of distance (known as the Planck Length) to the other reaches of space and the universe and everything in between, this amazing tool gives you a small idea of the incredible scale of the universe. Fascinating for any biologist, chemist, physicist, as tronomer, cosmologist, science student or simply anyone who marvels at our insignificance in the grand scale of things.


The Known Universe by AMNH

The Grand scale of the Universe

Artistic Interpretations

. . .  and for the more artistic and mathematics oriented learners, here is a TED talk:

part of the transcript:

And here is a similar sculpture. That’s the Sun at that end. And then in a series of 55 balls, it reduces, proportionately, each ball and the spaces between them, reduce proportionately, until they get down to this little Earth. This one is about the Moon. And then the distance to the Earth, in proportion also. This is a little stone ball, floating. As you can see the little tether, that it’s also magnetically levitated.

And then this is the first part of — this is 109 spheres, since the Sun is 109 times the diameter of the Earth. And so this is the size of the Sun. And then each of these little spheres is the size of the Earth in proportion to the Sun. It’s made up of 16 concentric shells.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 21, 2010 at 12:29 am

Posted in Education

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