Why Teachers Must Nurture Curiosity And Confidence To Inspire Students

Brilliant people aren't a special breed of super-humans. They just harness the power of their minds differently. They have the curiosity to wonder, “What if…” and the confidence to try and explore. Educators have a responsibility to insure that students’ natural curiosity and confidence are nurtured and encouraged through their curricula, not despite their curricula.

I have dedicated the past 35 years of my professional life to promoting impactful learning. I love engaging individuals in intellectual challenges — whether it’s face-to-face, via Skype, in the classroom, on television, or through over 4,000 math videos that I have created. Those uplifting moments of thoughtful engagement invite learners from ages 5 to 95 to discover new intellectual vistas and see themselves and the world in a completely different light.

To engage students in mindful ways, my colleagues in education and I need to support learners’ innate sense of curiosity and foster confidence. Confidence does not mean that we are devoid of doubt, but rather that we can move forward with a potential solution or answer and then be willing to engage in an open-minded process to further explore both the issue at hand as well as the promise of new insights. Creating an environment in which this intangible element of teaching is practiced daily is at the core of a meaningful liberal arts education. That process of rigorous discovery and exploration through the many different lenses of human thought sparks the sense of joy and satisfaction and also empowers individuals to be more effective in life.

I’m not a conventional academic. Whether I’m delivering Calculus in 20 Minutes, addressing the World Bank or Microsoft, or serving Southwestern University as president, I continuously encourage and challenge those around me to have the confidence to search more deeply and formulate thought-provoking questions. That’s how we at SU create a legacy of continuous learning — by providing individuals room to question and create.

Educators must ignite curiosity by creating a curriculum that requires questioning and effective thinking. On a test, it’s not enough to ask students to answer a set of questions. Part of that exercise should include having students create their own questions.

Sometimes you hear a math teacher respond to an inquisitive student who is pondering an unconventional approach to answering a question with, “Just do it the way I showed you.” Although this educator might be dedicated and well intentioned, that teacher is missing the opportunity to model confidence and curiosity for that young mind. Instead of taking up the challenge with, “Well, that’s a new idea. Let’s have a look and see if your method always works,” the teacher instead is implicitly delivering the time-honored response, “Don’t ask questions. Just memorize the algorithm.”

No wonder so many people hate math. The mindsets of making meaning and understanding deeply are not only the true joys and applications of mathematical thinking but also are the true joys and applications of the liberal arts, especially as we focus on building strong STEAM programs throughout the nation.

It’s not enough for students to be able to answer the last five questions at the end of the textbook chapter. Deep understanding comes from questions, false starts, and on-going discussion, which, in turn, lead to epiphanies. It is this process of growth upon which confidence is built. This journey of the mind is how information is transformed into true knowledge and wisdom. Our classrooms need to be playgrounds that instill habits that drive us to pursue and process information from many different sources, thereby creating greater meaning and engineering innovation.

Through my own teaching, I require my students to create questions and use those to steer the class —for we should never be teaching our students about subjects that they themselves are not wondering about at that very moment. Our challenge as educators is to inspire those questions and provoke that curiosity.

When I visit schools, especially elementary schools, and challenge those young minds to ask me math questions, all hands instantly dart into the air. They love it when their innate curiosity is rewarded. When we fan the flames of curiosity, we help build the foundation for the confidence required to allow those young minds to grow and flourish in their adult lives. We must stop the cycle of mindless mimicking just to get the correct answer and be done with the class and replace it with a formal education that builds rather than erodes curiosity and confidence.

I challenge educators to forgo some portion of the content of their current curriculum and instead invest that time in teaching the practices of making meaning, attaining a deeper understanding, and feeding students’ natural curiosity. If we make this change, our students will not only have a more joyful attitude toward learning, but also the confidence to constantly question their own thinking, create new discoveries, and contribute to humankind’s greatest legacy: moving understanding and knowledge forward. In doing so, we, together, will make the world a better place.

Raising Curious & Confident Kids is a new blog series geared towards ushering in the next generation of leaders in science, tech, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM). How can we give children the curiosity to question and more confidence to create? Let us know at inspirationgeneration@huffingtonpost.com.

CONVERSATIONS