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Creativity, Education, Students, Teaching

What I Learned From Third Graders

I am only passionately curious

cc flickr photo by ecastro

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.  ~ Dororthy Parker

This past week, I was fortunate enough to accompany my daughter’s third grade class on a field trip to Kartchner Caverns, near Tucson, Arizona.  This state park is a spectacular “living” cave system and offers an array of educational opportunities — the intended purpose of the trip.  The students had studied the requisite cave terminology, as well as some of the history surrounding the discovery of the caverns.  They were prepared to learn about caves…and then, something interesting happened.

We were off the bus for less than thirty seconds before there were shrieks, and a group of third graders were a huddled around a rather large, and colorful, grasshopper.  The questions began:

Why is it so big?
What does it eat?
Why is it so colorful?
Can it fly?
Does it bite?

The grasshopper was an unexpected diversion to learning about caves, but it wasn’t long before we were back on track.  That was, until we found the walking stick.

Is it alive?
Does anything eat stick bugs?
Why don’t we have stick bugs in Chandler?
Does it bite?

After several more minutes of examining the walking stick, we herded everyone in line for our tour of the caverns.  Back on track.  After a rather stressful review of what we could (and mostly couldn’t) do in the cave, we were finally ready for the “a-ha” moment.  You know…that time when a student connects classroom learning to “real” life.  Relevance.  We entered the cave, and the questions began again.

How did they get the sidewalks in here?
If it is dark in the cave, why is it so warm?
Why is there a bucket down there? (It was for the scientists to scrape the mud off of their feet.)
Why does my skin feel wet?
Does it rain in here?

Don’t misunderstand, it was a good field trip and the students certainly experienced a great deal related to what they had been studying.  But on the bus ride home (as a steady stream of students funneled down the aisle to try-out the on-board restroom) I pondered some of the questions students asked, as well as what had captured their attention.  In doing so, I decided that I had actually learned a great deal from them.

  • Children possess a natural curiosity about their world.  It is absolutely essential that educators tap into this curiosity to engage students, and perhaps more importantly, provide learning environments and opportunities that allow them to carefully examine and explore their personal interests.  If we fail to so, we risk eliminating curiosity as an educational asset (as described by Sir Ken Robinson).
  • Kids today are different from what they used to be.  Duh.  Of course they have changed…so have adults.  As educators, we have to be willing to try new instructional approaches and teaching strategies that will engage students who are perpetually changing.  No more saying “if it worked for me, it should work for them.”  In fact, we can’t even make the assumption that what worked last year will work this year, or what worked last week will work this week, or even what worked yesterday will work today.   Embrace education as a dynamic profession.
  • Planning is an essential part of successful teaching, but we shouldn’t allow our plans to interfere with impromptu opportunities for learning.  While the students were on this field trip to learn about caves, this didn’t prevent the kids from taking an interest in other things.  As educators, we need to seize upon these opportunities.  For the foreseeable future, we will have to deal with the timelines imposed by standardized testing, but it is a mistake to pass up the “unplanned” opportunities to add relevance to the learning experience.
  • Education is as much (if not more) about questions, as it is about answers.  I loved the questions the third graders asked during the field trip because they were genuine expressions of their curiosity about what they were observing.  While we might view some of the questions as “silly,” they give us a glimpse of a students thought process and allow us to understand what they are observing.

Embrace and foster student curiosity as an essential element of learning.  Be willing to change.  Plan, but be flexible enough to seize opportunities as they present themselves.  Take time to encourage questions.  Wow.  For a field trip to a cavern, I’d say I learned a lot.


About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.


3 thoughts on “What I Learned From Third Graders

  1. Nice observations by the students (and you too!). My best lessons have been impromptu “teaching” moments when the students’ interest creates an intrinsic motivation to learn. Thanks for sharing

    Posted by Julia Nabholz (@JuliaNabholz) | October 31, 2011, 1:06 am
  2. I love this post and plan to share it at my school. Thanks!
    Every one of your four points resonates for me, especially the last one (and the other three!!). So many teachers think it’s about getting the ‘right’ answer. Different and unexpected answers are often much more revealing about the learners, much more likely to propel the learning forward and much more likely to take the learning to interesting places. Really listening to what students say is vital. It’s something we are focusing on at my school as we read and discuss Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart which I recommend. We’ve started working in groups on examining and analysing student questions… I’m hoping my colleague will blog about the process soon.

    Posted by whatedsaid | November 4, 2011, 2:07 pm
  3. Thanks for reminding me to always stay curious! I hope I can learn to foster curiosity in my students and always encourage them to question–even if I think it might be off-task.

    Posted by kld347 | November 18, 2011, 9:29 pm

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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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