Back to School: 5 Science-based Tips for Supporting Your Kids’ Academic Success

5 Science-Based Tips for Supporting Your Kids’ Academic Success

It’s that time of year again. The morning air is comfortably crisp, pumpkin-flavored everything is everywhere, and my daily Facebook feed is filled with the obligatory “First Day of School” pictures. Look at those flashy, new backpacks and bright smiles! The parent in me wonders how to help them maintain that enthusiasm and achieve academic success this year and beyond. The science nerd in me digs in for answers.

Full disclosure: I am the kind of mom who believes in picking my battles. I dabble in free-range parenting. I could have made this a Top 10 list or even a Top 25 list for all of you Tiger Moms, Helicopter Dads, and [fill in the hyper-engaged descriptor] parents out there. Instead I have selected a handful of ideas that are consistently supported in the literature and that most busy families can implement. I hope it helps parents and educators, alike.

Without further ado, here are my top 5 science-based findings for cultivating academic success:

Tip #1: Parental Involvement

Parental involvement for student success bears out in the research time and time again. The real surprise is the nature of parental involvement that has the biggest impact. A recent study that looked at over 12,000 public school students found that parent-child discussions about school-related topics had a far greater effect on academic achievement than any other type of parent involvement such as participation in the PTA or even monitoring of homework.

The takeaway? Talk to your kids about school topics. You can even start by talking about the four other tips in this post!

Tip #2: Sleep Matters

Studies from Missouri to South Korea and places in between have shown that impaired sleep decreases cognitive functions such as verbal creativity and the learning of new abstract concepts. Sleep is critical for children’s learning and success. Critical.

The takeaway? Make sure your kiddos are getting enough sleep each night. This is not a new concept, but one that many of us struggle with as we juggle work schedules, school demands, and after school activities. If getting enough sleep is a struggle in your house, try some of the tips in the graphic. You probably know much of them already, so use them as talking points to get everyone on board. For parents of younger children, keep an eye on possible symptoms of sleep apnea such as loud snoring, heavy mouth breathing, and daytime sleepiness. Apnea impacts sleep quality and has been associated with poor cognitive function. Talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns, as apnea is quite treatable.

Tip #3: Self-Testing

Scientific American conducted a review of over 700 scientific articles about the best study techniques and came up with two practices that stood out above the crowd. One of these was self-testing. Whether by flashcards or practice tests, forcing ourselves to recall information – to sift through synapses of our mind – actually helps the learning to stick.

The takeaway? Encourage your kids to recall learned information often. Suggest or model self-quizzes for study sessions. Turn sight words into a memory game.  Get curious and ask for a retelling of yesterday’s history lesson over dinner.

Tip #4: Distributed Practice

The Scientific American review also recommends spreading study sessions over more time. In other words, those last minute cram sessions don’t really work in the long run. In fact, the longer the interval between review sessions, the longer the retention.

Two strikes! Those midnight cram sessions don’t work AND they take away from sleep. 

The takeaway? Encourage your kids to space out their study sessions rather than cramming right before the test. No easy task! Success may come from talking about this idea and modeling good time management skills. You can also suggest that students review fundamental concepts even after the unit has passed, as it will help to foment the understanding for end of year tests and, more importantly, for building upon in the future.

Tip #5: Growth Mindset

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right! People with a growth mindset believe they can learn new skills and become smarter through hard work and dedication. A growth mindset holds that failure is an opportunity to learn more and try again. In contrast, a fixed mindset assumes that we are born with inherent talents and skills. When people with a fixed mindset encounter a challenge, they are likely to assume that the task is too hard for them and simply give up.

Studies have shown that students with a growth mindset have greater academic success. Growth mindset is more than self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s neuroscience! In recent years, our understanding of neuroplasticity – the ability of the neurons to change in response to new information and sensory stimulation – has shown that our brains are much more malleable with far more potential than once thought.

The takeaway? Encourage a growth mindset in your kids. The research shows that even short and simple interventions can move students from a fixed mindset towards a growth mindset. The parenting section of the Mindset Works website, created by lead growth mindset researcher Carol Dweck, has a wealth of information and advice. Or look up Dweck’s book, Mindset, at your local library for a deeper dive.

***

The beginning of the school year is a great time to start a few new habits or strengthen old ones. Parents, what has worked for you and your family? Educators, what works for your students? What advice do you have for others? 

Field Trips: From Fiasco to Fantastic (Part 2)

In my last blog post I introduced my new “miniseries” on how to take fieldtrips from fiasco to fantastic. Whether you are a classroom teacher or a site coordinator for a field trip destination, you know all of the planning and effort that can go into a successful field trip. You might even know how much planning and energy can go into a less than satisfactory trip, too!

Of course, we all know that field trips can also be amazing opportunities for students and teachers to get out of the classroom and learn in new and exciting ways (not that your classroom isn’t exciting!). So what can classroom teachers and site coordinators do to ensure that the learning is meaningful, and no one gets left behind in the bathroom when the bus takes off for the school? I contend that if the following four items are given special attention, your next field trip is much more likely to fall in the fantastic category:

  1. Attention to details. Every. Stinking. Detail.
  2. Attention to timing. April and May are the "busy season" for most fieldtrips, but is that really the best time to go?
  3. Attention to basic needs. Think Maslow's hierarchy. What does everyone need in order to reach their full fieldtrip potential?
  4. Attention to chaperones. Chaperones are often overlooked as resources and as people who want a good experience, too.

Today we will tackle point number two. (If you missed the details on point number one, you can go back and check it out here).

Field Trips (2)

2. Timing is everything.

Ask any museum, zoo or nature center. If they are in the northern hemisphere, I can pretty much guarantee you that their crazy-busy time is in April and May. They may have a smaller peak in October, but near the end of the school year they either reaching capacity limits or the place is crawling with kids like ants around an industrious anthill. Or both. The problem, of course, is that in crowds like these, the kids may be far less industrious than the ants.

If you are used to taking field trips at the end of the school year, I encourage you to try a fieldtrip at nearly any other time of year. You will be amazed at the lack of crowds. Take it a step further in bucking the norm, and plan for a Monday instead of a Friday. You may have the whole place to yourself!

Consider the stress of fighting the crowds to get a glimpse of a favorite animal or to try that new hands-on activity, and you can see how planning for a less busy time could be a game-changer. Not only do crowds make the learning more challenging, but they can stress out the teachers and chaperones as they fight to make sure that they haven’t lost a child (or five!). What’s more is that you won’t have to settle for your 5th choice of days for the trip, because the site is already booked on your first four choices. Add in the fact that busses tend to be more readily available during the fieldtrip slow time, and you might just be considering a change. Am I right?

There is more to timing than logistics, though. Timing can mean the difference between a fun fieldtrip and a meaningful one. Yes, it is difficult to plan a trip earlier in the year when you may feel like you have less time to “fritter” away in the face of eminent testing.

On the other hand, what if you could plan a fieldtrip that complimented the curriculum, engaged the students in what they were learning, and powerfully cemented concepts in their minds? Wouldn’t that be more beneficial? Consider choosing a unit that falls in November or February. Prepare for the fieldtrip with content that you already must offer. Follow up the fieldtrip with an activity that requires the students to process their experience and link it to the curriculum and the standards. Take advantage of the curiosity and excitement of the fieldtrip to focus and heighten the students’ learning.

But I already link my field trips to the curriculum!” you cry. Indeed, you may very well have to do exactly that just to get approval from the administration. However, if you are linking back to a unit from several months prior, the value of the experience may be watered down. If you are linking to a current unit at the end of the end of the school year, you may struggle with the crowds. It is certainly worth considering if there are other units and other times that could be a better fit for a field trip that supplements the curriculum.

Of course, planning a field trip for earlier in the school year may take extra effort. I think I even acknowledged that in the first blog post. Ugh! So what can you do to make the planning a little simpler?

First, go back to Part 1 of the series and make sure that you are planning out all of the details. If you are used to planning a field trip for the end of the year or for a different unit, you may need to adjust the details a little bit. Be sure to start early, if possible.

Next, visit the site and ask questions ahead of time. Many field trip destinations invite teachers to visit for free for planning purposes. Some sites even plan educator events early in the school year that showcase their offerings (and even the offerings of other sites). Take advantage of these opportunities to research options, plan, and enjoy the place peacefully.

Do you wonder if that planetarium show will match your unit? Go watch it.

Do you worry that going earlier in the season will mean less opportunities to see the wildlife or plants that you are used to in May? Go look. See what your options might be. Talk to staff about alternatives that will meet your curriculum needs. Determine what clothing might be required in a colder or rainier season and plan accordingly.

Do you want to know more about the tour or program than the website can share in 40 words or less? Ask the staff. They want your field trip to be as successful as you do, and they can help you figure out the best plan for your needs. You can even ask about academic standards that different programming might support more directly.

Ask for additional resources, too! Many field trip sites prepare pre and post activities for classroom teachers to use before and after a tour or special program or simply to complement an exhibit or experience. They have often been aligned with local curricula and/or state and national standards. Traditionally, these resources are woefully underutilized, because it can be difficult to add “one more thing” into the unit. Of course, you read Part 1 of the series, and you are uber-organized now. If there is a pre or post activity available that fits with your curriculum, it may be worth taking the time to plan how it can fit the standards and other demands of your regular teaching. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t. But don’t overlook a useful tool.

Field trip site coordinators, does your site offer pre-planning opportunities for teachers? If not, I encourage you to consider how you might be able to do so. You may have noticed that the teachers who have been bringing groups for several years seem to have the kinks worked out of their process. In large part, this is because they know what to expect and how to maximize their students’ experience after several years of tweaking. You may be able to cut off the need for a few years for new teachers (and teachers who want to try something new) by offering a special “Educator Night” or by offering free entry to teachers who are going to or have made reservations for a field trip.

Overall, making a change to a traditional field trip schedule, or planning something for earlier in the year may require a larger time investment or may require that you move fast in August to get the ball rolling. That said, the payoff could be tremendous. Avoid the crowds and bolster the curriculum in real time. Those two changes, alone, might be enough to make your field trip the best ever. Plus, after you have planned the trip once, the next year will be cake.

You may look at all of the options and decide that you still need to plan your field trip for the end of the year. Perhaps you are going to an outdoor venue and have concerns about the financial ability of your students to have adequate clothing for the weather in January. Or perhaps you just really want the field trip to coincide with an end-of-year unit. If crowds are not an issue, April and May could very well be your best choice. If crowds are an issue, ask the site if there is a day of the week that tends to be slower.

Planning a field trip for early December may not work, but consider all of your options and think creatively before you nix the idea. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

So what do you think? Site coordinators, what are the benefits of visiting your site at less traditional times of year? Classroom teachers, have you tried planning field trips for other times of year? What were your experiences? Share your thoughts below in the comments and expand the conversation. 


 

Once you have all of the details worked out, and you know when you are going, the next step is ensuring that the kids and the chaperones are ready. Be sure to keep your eye out for parts three and four next week, so that your next field trip is your best one so far. To ensure that you don’t miss the next post, sign up to receive e-mail notification of all of my blog posts. I promise to only use your e-mail for good (blog posts) and not evil (spam).

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Field Trips – From Fiasco to Fantastic (Part 1)

I recently presented on the topic of field trips at the Advancing Environmental Education Conference organized by the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education. It was something I had wanted to present about a few years ago, but life got in the way. Last month I pulled together all of my recollections and memories from my time in school programs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and hoped for a few participants to show up.

I was thrilled as I watched the room fill up. While I had expected classroom teachers, I was quick to see that the bulk of the participants were more like me – informal education professionals. They were the folks who coordinated the fieldtrips at their sites. The ones who had seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. And they wanted to know what they could do to facilitate smoother experiences. The classroom teachers in the room wanted the same. The topic was clearly a hot one. As I reflected on the session, I thought that it might be a great topic for a blog post. I hope that you agree!


 

Field Trips (1)

Field trips. What is it about that word that can spark such joy in the heart of a student and such fear, or at least hesitation, in the heart of a teacher? That’s not to say that teachers don’t love the outcomes of fieldtrips, but the planning and stress that goes into pulling off a successful fieldtrip can be enough for even the heartiest of souls to feel overwhelmed at the prospect. Yet, year after year, school groups crowd onto busses and make the trek to a local (or not so local) museum, zoo, library, nature center, botanic garden, or other destination deemed worthy of visiting.

Some field trips turn out beautifully. I’m not just talking about learning goals. I mean that the kids have a great time and learn something. The busses show up on time and everyone remembers their sack lunch. Chaperones enjoy the experience and clamor to sign up again for the next fieldtrip. Teachers fall into their beds exhausted, yet supremely satisfied with the fruits of their labors. Even the educators at the field trip sites finish their day on that incredible high that comes from basking in the excitement of so many ah ha moments made that day.

And then some field trips are fiascos. It’s not that they are necessarily failures, but the stress level is palpable, and everyone goes home exhausted. Goals aren’t necessarily met. If they are lucky, they console themselves by saying, “Well at least the kids had fun.” **sigh**

So what it is that differentiates these two kinds of experiences?

Indeed, even if your last fieldtrip wasn’t a complete fiasco, are there some steps that you could have taken to make it go even smoother?

After working with school groups for several years in a science museum setting, having seen the best and the worst of experiences, I contend that there are four main areas that must be given attention in order to create a fantastic fieldtrip:

  1. Attention to details. Every. Stinking. Detail.
  2. Attention to timing. April and May are the "busy season" for most fieldtrips, but is that really the best time to go?
  3. Attention to basic needs. Think Maslow's hierarchy. What does everyone need in order to reach their full fieldtrip potential?
  4. Attention to chaperones. Chaperones are often overlooked as resources and as people who want a good experience, too.

Yes, addressing these areas will take additional time and effort on the front end, but I guarantee that the payoff will be worth it. Today, and in the following three blog posts, I will elaborate on each of these four areas with the goal of providing both classroom teachers and fieldtrip site coordinators with food for thought and ideas that can be implemented right away.

So I suppose I should start with number 1...

1. The Devil’s in the Details

field-trip-clip-art-black-and-white-galleryWell, duh. I promise that the next three posts will provide more “Ah ha” moments. None the less, there is no way to overstate the value of detailed preparation. For those that have not planned a lot of fieldtrips, you may not even know where to start. I have done my own online search for fieldtrip checklists, and I have been surprised (and disappointed) by the lack of resources.

So, obviously, I put something together, myself. I invite you to download my own Field Trip Planner and adjust it to suite your own needs. It may look like a crazy long checklist, and it is. The point is that you consider all of the details ahead of time so that nothing gets missed, and as many contingencies are considered. Something as simple as confirming your reservation a week out can prevent showing up on a day when they don’t expect you (yes, it can happen) and gives you the opportunity to discuss alternatives if the weather forecast is becoming worrisome.

Some steps may not apply. You may need to add others specific to your situation. The key is to think of every stinking detail that will need to be taken care of before, during, and after the fieldtrip. Be sure to include steps that are required by your district, your school, or the destination.

A detailed list doesn’t mean that one person has to be responsible for everything. If you tend to be the “big picture person,” find a teammate or parent who proudly boasts “detail-oriented” on his or her resume. Give that person the check list, and work through it together. In fact, build a fieldtrip team so that the weight does not have to fall to one single person. If possible, make sure that someone on your team has led a fieldtrip from your school or district before. They may know about steps to add to the list that have tripped them up in the past or that help them to succeed.

Fieldtrip site coordinators, don’t feel like this step isn’t for you, too! Pass along a checklist including items specific to your site. You may want to consider sending it with an invoice or attaching it to a confirmation e-mail. Does your site require advance payment? Include the deadline in the checklist. Are there steps that teachers should know ahead of time about the check-in process? Add that to the list. Consider yourself part of the teacher’s fieldtrip team. Whatever resources – like a checklist – that you can provide ahead of time will most likely pay off for you in the long run.

Sure, you can’t make someone use the checklist, but there is bound to be a teacher out there who will be thrilled to have a new tool. No doubt, it will make a difference for some of the school groups coming your way, and that means a smoother experience for you, too.

So what do you think? What details do you think are important to plan for? What has tripped you up in the past? Site coordinators, what details do you wish teachers would keep in mind? Teachers, how can site coordinators help support you so that you don’t miss any details? Share your own experiences in the comments section so that we can all learn from each other.


Details, of course, are just the beginning. Be sure to keep your eye out for parts two, three, and four later this week and next, so that your next field trip is your best one so far. To ensure that you don’t miss the next post, sign up to receive e-mail notification of all of my blog posts. I promise to only use your e-mail for good (blog posts) and not evil (spam).

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A Few of My Favorite (Online) Things

With the holidays, lots of extra stuff to do, and extra “help” around the house, I finally gave up on trying to put together an end of year post for the Curiosity Field Notebook. I didn’t give up on curiosity, though! In the calm moments of the evening, as I finished up the dishes in the sink, I found myself binge-listening to a few of my favorite science podcasts. In the moments before I rose out of bed, I snuck in a few minutes of reading some of my favorite education blogs. I even discovered a few other media gems as I worked on assignments for an online environmental education course (more on that in future blog posts).

As I reveled in gathering up new bits of information and ideas to think about, it occurred to me that you might enjoy some of my favorites, too! So I’ve put together a short list of some of the great podcasts, blog posts, and even YouTube videos that I ran across over the past month. All are connected to science and education in one way or another. I hope you find them as fascinating and/or useful as I do.

My one disclaimer is that – of course – this list is far from exhaustive. It’s just a bit of what I have enjoyed over the past few weeks. Be sure to include your own favorites in the comments section. I’m always looking for new dishwashing listening material, fun facts, tips and tricks, and jump-starters for curricula and blog posts.

Also, this blog post is not sponsored by any of the recommended blogs, vlogs, or podcasts. They just happen to be some of my favorites, so I thought I’d throw a little love their way and make sure that my favorite people (YOU!) know about them, too.

A Few of My Favorite (Online) Things (1)


PodcastS

My Go-To Listening Pleasure: RadioLab

Hands down, my favorite podcast of late has been RadioLab. This radio show, produced by WNYC Studios touts itself as “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” The combination of storytelling and science is what keeps me riveted. If you aren’t already familiar with RadioLab, here are a few of my top picks to get you started:

  • Staph Retreat – Find out how searchers are using the medicine of the past to understand the microbes of today.
  • Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR – A genetic super-tool has existed in bacteria for millions of years. Geneticists are just now beginning to imagine the possibilities: from fighting cancer to resurrecting dead animals, and the ethical questions in between.
  • Guts – This episode is older and it’s the one that got me hooked in the first place thanks to a Facebook post a couple of years ago by my friend Cassie, who is a science writer, and who also happens to be married to one of the show producers. She was more than just a proud wife posting, though. This episode is awesome! Don’t take my word for it, though. Even the producers re-ran it as a year end special, because it was one of their all-time favorites. You might skip this one if you are squeamish, but if you can handle a little digestive dialogue, you won’t regret listening.RL apocalyptical
  • Bonus video: Radiolab Live: Apocalyptical – Available as a YouTube video or as a sound file, this show, filmed in front of a live audience in Seattle is a fun romp with dinosaurs, destruction, and extinction. Spoiler alert! For all of those fans of Dr. Kirk Johnson (currently the Director of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, past VP at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and paleontologist host of Making North America, a NOVA special), you’ll be thrilled to hear his cameo appearance near the end of the show.

 

Possible Runner Up Podcast: The Infinite Monkey Cage

monkey cageI’ve only just recently discovered The Infinite Monkey Cage from the BBC. I can’t make any promises about the rest of the podcasts, but I’m really enjoying Episode One of An Infinite Monkey’s Guide to General Relativity that was produced at the end of last year in celebration of the centennial of Einstein’s great theory. Episode Two is on the agenda for tonight. If I continue to be impressed, I’ll be downloading more, for my run tomorrow. Perhaps some long-time fans can point me in the right direction.


Blogs

MindShift
curious-brain
My Favorite Blog Post: What’s Going On Inside the Brain of a Curious Child

If you are interested in learning in all of its dimensions, MindShift from KQED News and NPR is an amazing resource that covers current educational trends, education research, how the brain works, and social elements that impact teaching and learning. I also like that they have a strong thematic focus on growth mindset and games. Here are a few of my favorite recent posts:

 

Teacher Tom: Teaching and Learning from Preschoolers

It’s hard to say where to start, as I haven’t read a Teacher Tom blog post that I didn’t like or that didn’t at least make me think. If I were a preschool teacher, I would want to be just like Teacher Tom. If I lived in Seattle, my kids would go to his cooperative preschool where play rules, democracy is practiced, and the value of children as human beings is recognized and celebrated. If I had to pick (and it is very hard to do so) here are a few favorites. But don’t stop there. The man wears a cape. You’ll want to keep reading.


Videos

The Brain Scoop

The-Brain-Scoop-Vlogbrothers-Field-Museum-SaleMaybe it is my own personal history with a nature and science museum, but I just love the short and oddly curious videos from The Brain Scoop YouTube channel. Emilie Graslie is the Chief Curiosity Correspondent for The Brain Scoop at the Field Museum in Chicago (although the channel began at the University of Montana Museum and earlier videos take place in Missoula). Going behind the scenes at the Field Museum (and the Amazon, and a few other fun adventures), Emilie’s quirky personality and broad understanding of science, museums, and taxidermy makes this YouTube channel a joy to watch. And you might learn something new, too! Each show is so unique that I’m not choosing favorites for this one. Start anywhere. If you love it, you’ll keep watching.

Best Animation of Science History

I ran across this funny little one-off about the forgotten role of one woman in science in the Opinion section of The New York Times. “Animated Life: The Living Fossil Fish” is short, animated video that recounts how Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer “discovered” the living fossil of the coelacanth. The video creators, Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck, use a deceivingly simple medium to tell a wonderful story.  If I had a classroom, I could imagine showing this video and then challenging my students to create their own “history of science” short videos. Great. Now I’m kind of sad I don’t have a class of my own. If one of my readers takes off with this idea, you’ll have to come back and let us all know how it goes!


So what about you? What blogs, vlogs and podcasts have your attention these days? What should I add to my next “Favorite Things” blog post?

Why Ask Why? On Toddlers, the Brain, and Learning

 

When my daughter turned two and a half, it was almost as if the "Why? switch" turned on in her brain. Actually, maybe that is exactly what happened. For well over a year and a half, she asked, "Why?" to just about anything that I did or said. I would respond with an explanation, and she would follow it up with another, "Why?" Sometimes I had to ask her what she was even asking Why? about. Even her daycare provider, who had three children, three grandchildren, and over 20 years of childcare experience commented that she asked, "Why?" a lot.

A friend with a son the same age mentioned that she had read that toddlers often ask Why? to be part of the conversation as their communication skills are developing. Another way of looking at it was that my daughter didn't necessarily want the exact answers to her questions. Instead, she really was trying to convey the message that something was interesting, and she wanted to talk more about it with me.

Butterfly Investigation 1500What surprised me was not that she was curious. The question Why? implies curiosity. The revelation was that she was curious about much more than she could articulate. She had this one word that could keep me talking about the object(s) of her curiosity. She didn't want to know why. She simply wanted to know

Even today, at nearly five years old, my daughter is incredibly curious. She has expanded her questioning vocabulary and syntax, but her hunger for understanding and her desire to know is often insatiable. Sure, there are elements of her world that she finds mundane. Generally speaking she is not particularly interested in learning letters that are not in her name or the names of schoolmates with whom she rarely plays. Just don't get her started on dinosaurs, almost any form of invertebrate, or lunar landings! Trust me. Her inquiring mind wants to know.

Your Brain on Curiosity

Up until recently, I might have explained my daughter's inherent curiosity as part of her exploration of an ever expanding world. Physical mobility, as well as increased communication skills allow toddlers to explore and experience more than they could have a few short months earlier. These days, her world has expanded even more, as she navigates preschool, new friends, and additional adults in her life. The more she learns, the more she realizes there is to learn. The more she explores, the more she realize there is to explore. 

Then the other day I ran across a study published last year in the journal Neuron. This newest research suggests that curiosity activates the same parts of our brain that are activated when we recieve things that are rewarding, such as money or candy. In other words, our brains experience the act of curiosity as rewarding in and of itself. When these parts of the brain are activated the synapses are flooded with dopamine, giving us a natural high. So the more that my daughter asks why and expresses her curiosity, the better she feels. No wonder she gets so frustrated when my answer is a simple, "I don't know," effectively putting an end to the conversation. 

Brain squareThe study went on to demonstrate a connection between curiosity and activation of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in the creation of memories. The flood of dopamine that occurs during the peak of curiosity seems to prime the hippocampus, preparing it to learn. Study participants who were intrinsically motivated by curiosity, retained more of the new information and for a longer period of time. Indeed, it appears that our brains learn best and retain their learning longer when we are curious during the act of memory-making!

The researchers didn't bring it up, but it didn't escape my notice that, with all that dopamine flooding the brain, the learners were probably also having a pretty good time. 

They went one step further and included additional, unrelated information by flashing images of faces at the same time that study participants were demonstrating high levels of curiosity in the brain. Interestingly, memory-retention of this unrelated visual information was also inhanced when participants were highly curious, even when they were not curious at all about the faces. The learning-enhancing power of curiosity appears to be transitory and to include learning of other, less compelling information presented at the time of high curiosity. 

So what is the practical take away here?

How can we utilize this fascinating new understanding about the neurological connection between curiosity and enhanced learning? 

Perhaps for those of us with children in our homes and classrooms there is a simple lesson to be learned. Curiosity - especially the passionate kind - has a purpose and a role in learning. When we are exhausted from the constant string of whys, we do not need to always respond with the correct answers. We can share what we do know about the subject or what makes us curious about it, as well. We can offer books and resources to let children and students  explore the objects of their curiosity. Some days, we may even need to let the curiosity take the lead and then follow up later with the original plan for the day. The upshot, of course, is that we can rest easy knowing that learning is taking place.

Parents and informal educators may be especially able to capitalize on children's innate curiosity, as they may have more flexibility and may be able to provide new experiences that pique curiosity in the first place.

This new evidence is compelling, though, even for formal educators who may have less flexibility. If learning can be enhanced by encouraging curiosity, how can we, as educators, present materials in novel ways that catch students' attention and spark curiosity? How can we capitalize upon the curiosity-driven dopamine rush and co-present compelling learning opportunities that spark curiosity with other seemingly mundane topics? 

Is there a way for me to fill my daughter's curiosity cup about spiders and dragonflies while simultaneosly presenting opportunities to familiarize her with the letters D, F, and H? Now that I type out that question, that answer feels pretty obvious. Looks like it's time to pull out her favorite insect book!

What do you think?

How can we use this new understanding of curiosity and the brain to enhance learning in our homes, schools, and institutions? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. Let's start the conversation!

 

Interested in learning more about the referenced study? Be sure to check out their published paper and video abstract here: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2014.08.060. The video abstract was especially accessible to the neurosience layman. 

Read, comment, and pass it on!

Welcome to the Curiosity Field Notebook

A few years ago, a friend and supervisor of mine at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science asked me to take the StrengthFinder 2.0 test. My number one strength? LEARNER. The news came as a surprise to… absolutely no one. I loved school and would have become a professional student if that would have paid me a living wage. Instead, throughout high school and college, I figured I would become a scientist in order to satisfy my never-ending curiosity and desire to understand the world.

As the winds of change blew, I never became a cultural botanist searching the rain forests of the world for the cure to cancer. Nor did I become the next Jane Goodall, zen-fully observing primates. Along the way, I discovered that I also loved cultivating curiosity and authentic learning in others as much as I loved learning for myself. I took one job after another as a science or environmental educator. Perhaps it had something to do with another strength of mine: MAXIMIZER – I love to help others maximize their own strengths.

Albert-Einstein passionately curiousNot everyone will register as a LEARNER on the StrengthFinder test, but I do believe that curiosity is inherent within our species. If years of working with children of all ages strongly supported this truth, living with two young daughters has completely confirmed my suspicions. At some point around two and a half years old, the “Why” phase begins. Or at least that is when it becomes a favorite word. The exploring phase begins from birth. For scientists, engineers, tinkerers, explorers, learners, and others – whether by passionate, willful curiosity or supportive adult guidance – this phase never ends.

Many of us will stop putting everything in our mouth to taste our world as part of the exploration.

Most of us will eventually stop wondering if a bead, garbanzo bean or Lego will fit in our nostril.

[Or will we?]

However I propose that none of us ever really stop wondering “Why?” The desire to understand our world is built into our genetic code. Social constructs may sometimes prohibit us from saying it out loud. Tired parents and over-worked teachers may sometimes dampen the curiosity (although it should be said that a great many do an excellent job of encouraging inquiry and investigation). Somewhere, deep down inside, don’t we all wonder “Why?” just a little bit?

My goal for this blog is to pique your curiosity about the world around you and to help you do the same for others. Whether you ask, “Why?” as much as my almost 3 year old, are an armchair science enthusiast, a teacher looking for interesting ways to incorporate science into your curricula, an informal science educator, a parent, or someone who has accidentally stumbled across this blog, I hope that it intrigues you, inspires you to learn more, and offers you a space for compelling conversations about science, the world, and learning.

Welcome to the Curiosity Field Notebook!

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