Can Curiosity Overcome the Learning Effects of Poverty?

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Educators have long fought to close the achievement gap associated with poverty. Too often, students who come from a low socio-economic environment do not have the rich and varied outside-of-school learning experiences and supports from which their more socio-economic advantaged classmates have benefited. Consequently, they cannot rely as heavily on what they already know to support their learning. Often, the same learning task takes longer and requires more effort for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds because they must first build background knowledge and context as they work and learn.

Most formal, traditional learning environments spend little time on and give limited attention to student background experiences and knowledge. Lessons are taught as they have been planned and scheduled, too often with limited significant adjustments in response to variations in what students already know. The consequences have been well-documented in decades of research. The results are commonly called the achievement gap, or by some, the opportunity gap.

However, findings from a study completed in 2018 by Pediatric Research casts new, hopeful light on one factor that appears to counter this seemingly intractable problem. The research involved more than 6,000 children from a variety of backgrounds and environments and focused on factors that impact learning outcomes. The researchers (Shah, Weeks, Richards, & Kaciroti, 2018) discovered that a key factor driving learning achievement for students from all backgrounds was curiosity. For most educators, this conclusion by itself is not completely surprising. But, the study found that curiosity plays an even larger role in accelerating the achievement of students from lower socio-economic environments. In fact, students from lower SES environments with high levels of curiosity appeared to perform at the same levels as their more SES-advantaged counterparts.

While it remains urgent to redesign formal learning environments to minimize the effects of poverty on learning, this new finding offers hope for students and educators to counter the effects of the current system. Of course, the question of how to develop and nurture curiosity remains.

Some students come to school with innate curiosity. For these students we need to encourage and continue to feed their curiosity, including tolerance of seemingly incessant questions, occasional distractions, and periodic obsessions with their latest passion. We need to search for ways to connect required learning to their interests and, when possible, give them space, support, and opportunities to explore.

We can help to build curiosity by asking interesting, open-ended questions. Of course, this strategy requires us to know our students well enough to determine what questions and topics they will find interesting. Why do you think, what do you predict, and what might you do next questions are good stems to stimulate curiosity. These also are questions we can teach and encourage parents to employ to encourage and support curiosity in their children.

Further, we can resist the temptation to step in immediately and provide direction when students struggle while engaged in learning they find interesting and purposeful. A suggestion, hint, or coaching comment can help without stealing ownership for learning. A sense of accomplishment and openness to pursue the next challenge is often influenced by past success in the face of struggles.

Curiosity is not the “silver bullet” to solve the persistent challenge of closing the gap in achievement associated with socio-economic environments. However, it can make a powerful, life-long difference, especially for students who come from environments where exposure to opportunities and support for learning are not always present.

Reference:
Shah, P. E., Weeks, H. M., Richards, B., & Kaciroti, N. (2018, April 26). Early childhood Educators have long fought to close the achievement gap associated with poverty. Too often, students who come from a low socio-economic environment do not have the rich and varied outside-of-school learning experiences and supports from which their more socio-economic advantaged classmates have benefited. Consequently, they cannot rely as heavily on what they already know to support their learning. Often, the same learning task takes longer and requires more effort for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds because they must first build background knowledge and context as they work and learn.

Most formal, traditional learning environments spend little time on and give limited attention to student background experiences and knowledge. Lessons are taught as they have been planned and scheduled, too often with limited significant adjustments in response to variations in what students already know. The consequences have been well-documented in decades of research. The results are commonly called the achievement gap, or by some, the opportunity gap.

However, findings from a study completed in 2018 by Pediatric Research casts new, hopeful light on one factor that appears to counter this seemingly intractable problem. The research involved more than 6,000 children from a variety of backgrounds and environments and focused on factors that impact learning outcomes. The researchers (Shah, Weeks, Richards, & Kaciroti, 2018) discovered that a key factor driving learning achievement for students from all backgrounds was curiosity. For most educators, this conclusion by itself is not completely surprising. But, the study found that curiosity plays an even larger role in accelerating the achievement of students from lower socio-economic environments. In fact, students from lower SES environments with high levels of curiosity appeared to perform at the same levels as their more SES-advantaged counterparts.

While it remains urgent to redesign formal learning environments to minimize the effects of poverty on learning, this new finding offers hope for students and educators to counter the effects of the current system. Of course, the question of how to develop and nurture curiosity remains.

Some students come to school with innate curiosity. For these students we need to encourage and continue to feed their curiosity, including tolerance of seemingly incessant questions, occasional distractions, and periodic obsessions with their latest passion. We need to search for ways to connect required learning to their interests and, when possible, give them space, support, and opportunities to explore.

We can help to build curiosity by asking interesting, open-ended questions. Of course, this strategy requires us to know our students well enough to determine what questions and topics they will find interesting. Why do you think, what do you predict, and what might you do next questions are good stems to stimulate curiosity. These also are questions we can teach and encourage parents to employ to encourage and support curiosity in their children.

Further, we can resist the temptation to step in immediately and provide direction when students struggle while engaged in learning they find interesting and purposeful. A suggestion, hint, or coaching comment can help without stealing ownership for learning. A sense of accomplishment and openness to pursue the next challenge is often influenced by past success in the face of struggles.

Curiosity is not the “silver bullet” to solve the persistent challenge of closing the gap in achievement associated with socio-economic environments. However, it can make a powerful, life-long difference, especially for students who come from environments where exposure to opportunities and support for learning are not always present.

 

Reference:
Shah, P. E., Weeks, H. M., Richards, B., & Kaciroti, N. (2018, April 26). Early childhood curiosity and kindergarten reading and math academic achievement. doi: 10.1038/s41390-018-0039-3

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