What I Have Learned about Teaching from My Daughter

As the parent of a six-month-old, I have learned about a lot of things recently.  I’ve learned how to change a diaper in situations that were less than ideal for accomplishing this normally mundane task; I’ve learned how to function on very little sleep; I’ve learned (or, rather, confirmed) that my wife is a superhero; I’ve learned that once babies learn how to roll around they like to do it A LOT; I’ve learned that the sound of your own child’s laughter can change your perspective in fundamental ways.

Unexpectedly, though, I have also learned a few things about teaching from my daughter.  I thought this would happen at some point, but I didn’t think it would occur so early in her life.  Although she is still months away from being able to speak, observing her every day has made me think about the classroom in new ways.

Let me illustrate:  We have a red coffee cup that I like to use because it holds more coffee than our other cups (see above for what I’ve learned about sleep).  My daughter is very curious about this cup.  She stares at it, reaches her hand out to touch it, rubs it (when it’s not hot), and tries to grab it.  She does this with many things around the house, frequently attempting to put them in her mouth as well.

For her, learning is about necessity:  “That’s an interesting looking cup.  I need to touch it RIGHT NOW.”  It is about relevance:  “I wonder if that funny red cup is important for my daily needs.”  It is about trial and error:  “I have judged this cup and determined that it is not of immediate significance.”  I like that I can see this process playing out every time I drink from the cup.

What has been revelatory for me, however, has been the completely unbridled curiosity I have witnessed from her in these moments.  I have been wondering lately how, as a teacher, I could spark the same kind of intellectual curiosity in my students–about the Middle Ages as opposed to, say, red cups.  We were all children once, and surely we haven’t entirely lost this sense of curiosity that was once the driving force of our daily lives.

How to find it, though?  How to tap into it?  I’m full of more questions about this than answers, but there must be a way to teach that allows everyone to reach back through the years and become the curious individuals we once were.  Part of this probably has to do with making the material necessary and relevant, and the literature on teaching and learning has had a lot to say about these elements.  But what about curiosity?  There must be a way to cultivate this in our students or, at least, to help them find it all over again.

What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “What I Have Learned about Teaching from My Daughter

  1. As I tell my students, curiosity is the single most important attribute to cultivate during their education. From curiosity, all else springs. But how do I encourage it? Part of it, of course, is modeling it. I attack texts not from the position of expert (even if that may be true in some cases), but rather I question it, and then question my students when they reply. But part of it – and I really am being serious – is that I flat out reject that my job has anything to do with “making the materials necessary and relevant.” I look at necessary and relevant as someone else’s job. Part of the point of what I teach is that it isn’t necessary. Nobody needs to understand literature to do anything necessary; the world will turn and things will be done regardless of one’s understanding of metaphor. However, the world would (of course) be far less interesting. So few of my students will ever have jobs that require what I teach them, that telling them otherwise would be a lie. That said, their lives will be far less interesting for not exploring the wonder and joy that is language. One of the reasons why so many students are increasingly less curious is because that’s how we’re training them: they are shepherded through exams in high school and college with the promise that an education provides job training.

    • I meant “necessary and relevant” in the sense that _Visions of Gerard_ is necessary and relevant to you as Jim Donahue, a human being, in the same way that _The Sirens of Titan_ or _Don Quixote_ is necessary and relevant to me.

      I would also argue, as I have in other places, that studying literature teaches us things (like critical reading, writing, and thinking, skills in argumentation, etc.) that are necessary and relevant throughout our lives regardless of our chosen career.

      As always, I appreciate your thoughts, Jim. Our blogs seem to have replaced the in-person conversations we had as graduate students, and I’m grateful for the continuation of our chats.

      • Thanks for the clarification, and you are absolutely right, in that what we love are necessary to who we are as humans. And while it’s also true that the study of literature (and history and math and music, etc.) provide skills that are transferrable to non-academic settings, I am increasingly frustrated that arts and humanities programs are expected to make the case that we are part of a job training service for students. I especially feel this at a small state school whose funding is continually cut, and whose department is told (overtly and implicitly) that we exist to prop up those departments that get students jobs (and thus are useful and worth the financial investment).

        And I also miss our talks. I may have to find an excuse to get to your neck of the woods.

  2. Josh, we were just talking about curiosity in the lunch room yesterday (cue Twilight Zone music). I’ve been reading Parker Palmer’s _The Courage to Teach_ and I really appreciate what he says about making your subject, “the great thing,” the center of your classroom. When some really compelling subject is at the center (as opposed to the teacher or the students), he says, this subject takes on its own power and shapes the classroom as a community of learners. So, that rings true to me. But it also presumes that the members of the community arrive willing and prepared to embrace a compelling subject. I’m waiting to see if the book addresses this assumption in a later chapter, because the lack of curiosity in many students is very real.

    I was thinking about this: what if I began the term with some very exciting presentation of the subject (with assistance from Hollywood and any other sensory or emotional pull I can think of), and gave the students a week or so to consider their own ways into “the great thing” — whatever experiences they have that they can tap into in order to feel some genuine interest in exploring the subject. And then asked them to demonstrate this genuine curiosity through some assignment. And the evaluation of the assignment — again, this would be early on in the term — would offer them my sense of the likelihood of their success over the course of the semester based on the degree of interest they’ve demonstrated.

    Just thinking out loud here. Curiosity feels like the key to everything, though, doesn’t it?

    Thanks for the good post! — Susan

    • I love this idea, Susan! What do you think this presentation would look like? What points would be necessary to hit? I could see confronting a series of unanswered questions, presenting some poignant sketches of life during the time period under consideration, etc.

      Curiosity is definitely a key. Can it be taught, though? In some ways it seems similar to creativity, which can be nurtured and developed, but perhaps not necessarily taught.

      You’ve given me a lot to think about here, though. I think I may change the way I do things at the beginning of next semester.

      • I’m continuing to think about what to do, too. I heard a conference paper earlier this term about how we tend to learn more deeply if there’s some kind of affective (emotional) aspect to the learning moment, but it feels pretty overwhelming to create that experience — bang! — on the first day. I like your idea about sharing unanswered questions and sketches of life; in the past, I’ve sometimes used dramatic film clips (the martyrs burning in the opening of _Elizabeth_, for example). But I didn’t press much to get their reactions.

        The experience has to involve something the students would bring to the table, you know? Beyond a teacher presentation (which the uncurious would remain unaffected by, no matter what), there should be some opportunity to connect associations of their own with the subject. I’d want to know specifics about their fears or enthusiasms for the subject, and what kinds of things they would really like to understand.

        Hmmm. . .

      • I wish I could have heard that paper! The affective component of learning is also consistent with the work on brain-based learning theories. Students have to be invested at a deeper level than simply being interested in order to maximize their learning.

        You raise a bunch of important questions in that second paragraph, too. On the more mundane level, I developed a Learning Survey while I was at CSU that asked students, at the very beginning of the semester, what they wanted to learn in the course, what questions they most wanted answered by the end of the semester, and what excited them most about the course. I used it to help shape some of the things I did during the semester, but it didn’t quite achieve the gains in curiosity that you’re talking about here.

        Perhaps a semester-long project (scaffolded in stages) that allows them to choose something in which they are interested, even if it’s not on the reading list or a topic covered in class?

        Still thinking…..

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