“Poke the Box”: Inviting Students to Wonder and Initiate

by Ben Koch

In his 2011 book, Poke the Box: What was the Last Time You Did Something for the First Time?, prolific marketing and business expert Seth Godin implores us to reclaim the curiosity that drives INITIATION. Simply put, initiation is the will, the habit, the discipline, and the audacity of starting things. New things. Risky, untested things with a pretty good chance of failure. His metaphor of “poking the box” invokes that unique mix of boldness and insatiable wonder that drives the doers of the new economy. When you poke the box, you are curious enough to want to manipulate, analyze, and maybe even reverse engineer it, despite the high risk of failure. How’s that thing work?! This, says Godin, is the true path to innovation.

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Click to view book on Amazon.

While the book invigorated and inspired the entrepreneur in me, it was the educator and parent in me who began to mentally overlay Godin’s vision onto the world of schools and classrooms. I asked: are there not just opportunities, but in fact invitations to “poke the box” in the learning environments we create for students?

I asked: are there not just opportunities, but in fact invitations to “poke the box” in the learning environments we create for students?

Poking the box is so crucial, asserts Godin, because “without the ability to instigate and experiment, you are stuck, adrift, waiting to be shoved” (p.4). Hmmm. I think back to the hundreds of classrooms I’ve seen, and I realize I’d never thought of the classroom environment in quite that metaphorical light–how is a classroom that values compliance and linear, pre-ordained objectives like a BULLY that shoves students into submission?

Godin frames this desire to initiate in terms of types of capital. There can be financial, network, intellectual, physical, and prestige capital, for instance. All crucial to some degree for success. The most important capital, though, the one difference-maker, says Godin, is Instigation Capital: The desire to move forward. The ability and the guts to say yes. “The ability and the guts.” I like that his definition includes guts, because guts imply courage, and courage implies risk. Are our learning environments creating students willing to take risks? Because that’s the key stepping stone, the primal ingredient for developing students into adults who later possess instigation capital.

If set expectations and the fear of failure are the gravity that keep us in an orbit of the familiar, than I like to think of curiosity as the one force strong enough to break us free from that orbit. The rocket fuel to leave the atmosphere of Planet Status Quo. Indeed, in his mini chapter Where Did Curious Go? Godin laments the fade of true, insatiable curiosity, that hungry, hellbent drive to just KNOW: “Not the search for the right answer, as much as an insatiable desire to understand how something works and how it might work better.” (p. 24). He’s careful, though, to distinguish between the merely creative person, and the person with initiative: “The difference is that the creative person is satisfied once he sees how it’s done. The initiator won’t rest until he does it” (p. 24).

In the context of the business world, Godin highlights the contrast between that which is  “allowed and not-allowed.” Invariably, employees can rattle off a running list of what’s not allowed at work. But who knows what IS allowed? Why not focus on that, on the realm of the possible? Godin feels we “might be afraid of how much freedom we actually have, and how much we’re expected to do with that freedom.” (p. 37) I immediately applied this filter on the classroom. Pick a random student and ask her to list off all the rules of what not to do to avoid getting in trouble. Now ask the same student what IS allowed. She’s likely to give you a most befuddled look. Classrooms are about constriction and control, not about expansion and possibility.

If set expectations and the fear of failure are the gravity that keep us in an orbit of the familiar, than I like to think of curiosity as the one force strong enough to break us free from that orbit. The rocket fuel to leave the atmosphere of Planet Status Quo.

Three years ago, after over a decade in the public school classroom, I walked away to launch my own education company with a friend and business partner. I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate it at the time, but looking back now, I see the classroom as a box, slowly but surely becoming a hermetically sealed cube, not to be tampered with. The quest for correct answers driven by high-stakes testing has created a system which values conformity and douses curiosity like a dangerous torch. By upper elementary, most students have complacently accepted the “A, B, C or D world” and stopped wondering about the off-the-page option, let alone how to initiate it.

So, through our company, we started poking all kinds of boxes, seeing what OTHER ways we could enrich the students who needed it most. What types of programs and curriculum and learning environments, when “unshackled” from the constraints of mainstream schooling objectives, really work? Turns out, having the freedom, the curiosity, and the guts, to see education with new eyes, as a system to POKE, has been extremely fruitful.

Well, here are 4 well-wrought and tested pieces of experience-wisdom from these last 3 years of creating “alternative” learning spaces. Am I sharing these to get your kid into one of our programs? While that would be swell, my real motive for sharing is because I sincerely believe these lessons can be applied in virtually any learning environment. Whether you’re a radical unschooler or still teaching in a traditional classroom, there are degrees to which the following can spark up your learning environment to increase initiation capital for your students:

1 Create Mixed-age Learning Interactions

Research on asynchronous development tells us the arbitrary “date of birth” metaphorically stamped on your gifted child’s behind might just be the least important thing to consider (watch a thought-provoking animation of this from Sir. Ken Robinson’s Changing Paradigms talk), and yet our entire industrialized school system hardly wavers from that one organizing principle. We thought, “well, they say intellectual peers are key for gifted kids, so let’s open up the environment to let those connections happen organically.” Nearly all our programs, from our flagship summer camp to our after school enrichment courses, are mixed age, open to grades 1-8. Parents are encouraged to let students gravitate to a course based on their passion. Because where there’s passion, there’s curiosity, and where there’s curiosity, there’s…you guessed it, the drive to initiate!

2 Take Leaps of Failure

Some of the greatest moments of discovery over the last 3 years have taken place when I, as the teacher, stood at the brink of an unknown step right alongside a student. “Will this work? I don’t know! What’s gonna happen? No idea. But is it right? Who cares?!” True, sometimes these mystery steps ended up as face plants onto academic concrete. But many times these moments of unknowing revealed wildly unforeseen solutions and pathways that, had I been the “expert,” we never would have facilitated. Our notion of teacher as “sage on the stage” was so exploded, in fact, that we had to invent a new term to describe our role with students: inspirator. Part educator, part inspirer. An inspirator drives ahead with the same curiosity of his student, and willingly takes leaps of failure.

3 Remove the Burden of Grades

We create academically rigorous, interdisciplinary courses designed to push kids through their zone of proximal development. This ain’t fluff, folks. And we’ve never offered a single numerical/letter grade. Yet students carry through to the very end, digging deep, creating elaborate final projects, and beaming with excitement for the “next step.” How do we do it? Why do students even care? Turns out there’s life after the carrot and stick! Remember when you were 6 and you spent 5 solid hours building a LEGO universe, because your whole being was invested in it? When students meet authentic, passion-driven curriculum that aligns with their own curiosity, there’s a chemical reaction of which the by-product is intrinsic motivation. It’s a thing! And no it can’t be bottled!

4 Embrace Creative Play

Many of our programs are based on the concept of creative play–that students “open up their minds to what’s possible, take chances, solve problems, collaborate and become better creative thinkers and doers” (see the Imagination Foundation).

One event, for example, is inspired by the remarkable story of Caine, the (then) 9 year old boy who transformed his dad’s parts shop into a “maker” arcade of cardboard, tape, and trinkets. I’m still overcome with emotion every time I see it. We host an annual event (like many others around the world with the encouragement of the Imagination Foundation) called the Cardboard Challenge, in which students show up and are presented with one simple challenge: “Here’s a bunch of random stuff, mostly cardboard. By the end of the day, we need a functioning arcade game. Go!” In the beginning, we worried about perception. Would parents see value in this? On the surface it appears loose and unstructured–few see the hours and hours of prep that had gone into creating this open learning environment. Then, at that first event, we saw magic happen. Real, intense, mind-bending alchemy of extraordinary imagination, creativity and problem solving. By not placing boundaries with expectations, young INITIATORS searched for their own boundaries. My first thought, to be honest, was lamentation over the years of wasted opportunities in my classrooms when I’d had too little faith in the organic power of creative play.

You don’t have to be a zany “edupreneneur” like us to approach your gifted students’ learning in this way. Wherever you are–a homeschooling mom, a Middle School principal, a 3rd grade public school teacher–poke that box! Initiate a new learning situation. See what happens.

References

Godin, S. (2011). Poke the box: When was the last time you did something for the first time? Irvington, N.Y.?: Portfolio/Penguin.

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Ode to a Rush-Free Childhood

by Pia K. Ruda

As parents, we are constantly playing catch up in several fields at once, trying to keep up with the others. Almost two months before the new school year started, I was already too late to sign up for library duty at my son’s school.  More efficient and organized parents had taken the shifts, on the first day of sign ups.  To get the optimal time slots for piano lessons, tennis, or art classes, you have to be on it.  I am an outcast in this game.  In fact, I am growing to celebrate it.

I’ve seen many kids pushed into too many activities by perky parents, but especially by parents of endlessly curious, high ability children (code for gifted).  These parents sigh that their offspring is “just so interested in everything.”  They say that their kids insist on being a part of all those activities.  Gifted children do often have natural abilities in several areas:  sports, acting, music, or art, to name a few. Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.  

Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.

Choosing the rush-free path can be especially hard with the multi-talented gifted child. What if he could be the next big thing in something that we rule out?  What if he misses out, if he doesn’t reach his potential?  Well, then, I guess we will never find out – and I choose to take comfort in that.  I believe that true passions are not so easily silenced, and that they will thrive even in less optimal conditions.  I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

Having moved to the U.S. a little over a decade ago, it has been interesting to observe parental roles and expectations in this country.  Here, filling a child’s life with as many structured activities as possible seems to be one of the key measuring sticks of successful parenting.  Families aim for perfectly planned and balanced schedules with a great variety of activities.  These tightly packed days start in toddlerhood.  I remember watching my boys’ classmates getting hastily transported to activities after Pre-K, shoving down a snack in the car.   They ran to karate, ballet, violin, baseball, art, or gymnastics – a different activity each day.   “You want them exposed,” parents would say.  “You want to give them all these choices.  You don’t want them to miss out.”

But what if they miss out on their own childhood?

A gifted child, especially one with the perfectionism monster lurking on his shoulder, can get anxious with the pressures and demands. Some gifted kids base their self-worth on their achievements, on what they measurably do.  Especially for these children, it can be beneficial to consciously shift the focus towards celebrating learning itself.  They need awareness of their own discoveries, their new connections and thoughts, and the feelings found within themselves, through the exploration of a new field. In order to give room for character development, I firmly believe in allowing our children breathing room.  They need space to discover who they are, and what is truly important to them.  They need unstructured time, to discover their inner world, without too much push-and-pull and direction.  

Social-emotional growth and well-being need both time and space.

Cultural reflection is where I spend a lot of my own time.  From my perspective, I see this game – scheduling and programming our children and youth – in the revealing Arctic light.  In my native country, little Finland, things are different.  We have no school sports teams, no cheerleaders, and no prom queens or kings.  In Finland, college admissions are solely based on academic success in high school, as well as subject specific entry exams.  As a result, the kids are not required to have inhumane numbers of recorded achievements from a variety of extracurricular activities.  In Finland, kids spend their afternoons playing, with a hobby of their choice, or sometimes just getting bored.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.  I see the rush-free childhood as a right, much like recess and school lunches.  These are children’s rights, not privileges.  For me, this is closely linked to “instinct parenting,” which gives the parents the right to follow their own safe instincts when parenting their own children, instead of religiously following the manual of the moment.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.

So, I’ve decided it is just fine not keeping up with it all, and I think we’re still going to be just fine in the end.  I have never heard an adult complain bitterly that he had too much time to play as a kid, or that he spent too many hours reading books and riding his bike.  I have, however, heard bitter adults share memories of parents making them play a certain sport, or practice an instrument for which they themselves felt no passion.  

Yes, my boys are missing out on so many activities in which they could potentially shine.  But I would rather have them not miss out on their own childhood.  I want to give them space to find themselves, and not force-feed the ingredients of the ideal overachiever. That is where my priority lies. With the long American school days, and excessive amounts of homework, it is hard — but I try to give my sons the leading parts in their childhoods. Now is the time, for there won’t be any dress rehearsals.

7 Ways to Generate Genuine Curiosity in Students

by Darla Hays

At a recent faculty meeting, the teachers were asked to share what they would love to have more of in their classrooms.  We were to choose one area that we would always want to know more about and improve upon.  What was the one topic that was overwhelmingly expressed?  Student engagement and curiosity!

What do all teachers and students want?  Active, engaged, and curious moments during lessons. Easily requested, but just how do we get there? Today’s fast paced world and even faster moving classrooms mean that to reach students above the din of demands on their attention we need to present information in ways that are inventive. It is no small feat to reach a point of pure curiosity growing in the minds of students.

We can all recall times when it seemed like the students were certainly somewhere far away from the classroom in their minds. One time I saw this happening and I immediately thought of the classic movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  I could see the teacher in that movie scribbling cluelessly on the chalkboard and calling out in his now classic monotone voice, “Bueller, Bueller?”  Well, I know that if I see those signs—the thousand yard blank stare, the figurative drool running down their chin—within the first few minutes of a lesson, I have to make a change to find the energy and passion in the students in order to hit that “sweet spot” between passions and abilities that Sir Ken Robinson speaks of in The Element.

After all, what good is education if students feel completely disinterested?  I have always wanted to be the type of teacher that creates FUN in lessons.  I don’t want to be known as ‘Lady Blah, Blah’ or become famous as  the teacher version of ‘Be – yawn- say’!

Although we know that it isn’t a perfect science to instill in children a thirst, a full curiosity to know, we still want to hit it more often than not.  Over the years in the classroom setting, I have striven to be equal to this challenge.

So, what has 17 years in education taught me about student curiosity and engagement?  What gems of observation have shown me the way?  What have I learned from fellow teachers and students?

ONE

These teacher tricks produce students who are genuinely curious and are practically bursting out of their skin to learn.  I-M-A-G-I-N-E!I have learned to set the tone right at the start using a curious question. Either I give the essential question and students write or discuss their thoughts or I have asked them to write their curious question on a sticky note or in their journals.  Having a place of curiosity to begin with is a sure fire way to get the thinking going from all brains in the room!  It gives the message to kids that to ask, to be a part of the investigation is OK, and is welcome and important!  Taking it a step further is to have the students compare their notes after the lesson and discuss their thoughts.

TWO

The element of surprise is a great way to keep the energy and pace going! I have been known to suddenly take a stuffed animal off the classroom shelf and use it to pretend to bite a cactus when teaching about plant adaptations.  The students didn’t plan on it and they remembered it long afterward.  Mission accomplished.

THREE

Humor goes a long way in a classroom. Research shows that when students are stressed their mind is blocked to learning and their brain cannot make new dendrites of knowledge.  Humor allows the stress or pressure to escape.  Just a dose of it is enough and students will relax and open their minds thus allowing them to think creatively and curiously.  I have been seen purposely making a mistake and then students will love to correct me and suddenly all ears and eyes are watching!  Kids will tell you that I am the teacher that will suddenly start talking in a foreign accent to get their attention and a bit of a laugh. Students will learn the boundaries of having moments of fun and enjoyment mixed with the seriousness of high rigor in lessons.

FOUR

Making it true to life for students is vital. If they can see their part in the learning and how it will be applied to their lives, if they can make a connection, they will value it and make a true investment.  I often use my own family (sorry family members but you are great examples) to give students a real life example of the learning being used in every day scenarios.  This is fun and gets them interested in the daily ups and downs of life and how education supports people each day. Besides this, they love hearing funny stories about my family.  I will mention a popular TV show or character that relates to their own lives and it not only shows my ‘with-it-ness’ to care about their world but it helps them to also make those connections and CARE about the lesson.

FIVE

We all know that technology and being constantly plugged in is now a woven thread in our daily lives. The generations growing up in our world are technology immersed in many ways and we can see how much it draws them in!  Embracing this fact and using it to our advantage when teaching is a modern day golden path to engagement and curiosity along with an avenue to higher thinking.  It doesn’t have to be the ONLY tool in a lesson but it is a piece of the puzzle that students really like.

SIX

Students crave being involved and having a voice in the classroom.  Allowing them to discuss and share even just with a partner gives them access to aligning with the topics we want them to deeply know.   If you were to visit my classroom you would see that there is always a buzz about something.  I have learned to ebb and flow with the curiosity of the students.  Kind of like going with the current.  Sometimes, the driving force is the student and it can often take us there faster and more productively.  I have seen how honoring their risk taking builds them all up higher.

SEVEN

Student creativity is like a turbo boost to a lesson.  When I see how students interpret information and when I watch them pull their talents together to create, I know how much of the material they are really tapping into.  We are really doing them a favor when we invite them to show what they know through creative expression.  They will be better prepared for the work world of their future if they can synthesize information and connect a thought to many more thoughts and show it in unique ways.  This doesn’t always have to be a big project.   In fact, it develops creativity more if it is done in small ways consistently.  I love it when I see a student write in the margins of their composition new and fun thoughts.  I enjoy stretching them sometimes by just asking them to write 2 questions on the bottom of the paper or challenging them to make a new game or quiz for the class. Even just allowing them to make a word web out to the side of their paper builds their ability to make several connections quickly. I even allow them to doodle on their page in those small moments of wait time only if what they doodle connects to the learning topic.

Letting students create when our time is crunched and we have testing coming up, eep!  Is that really possible?  Yes!

So, there you have it, my seven wonders of the world of curiosity and engagement.  I don’t know how education will look over the next decade.  One thing is for sure, I will continue to strive for curious kids in the classroom and take joy in seeing them light up with an honest love of learning.