The Curious Importance of Curiosity

From the moment of our birth, we are curious. It is how our brain has programmed us to survive. Babies touch, explore, and taste to learn and understand their environment. Toddlers interminably ask questions. But too often, in the quest for grades and good scores on high-stakes tests, the urge to satisfy curiosity is overwhelmed by the need to produce the right answer. Albert Einstein famously said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” And knowing the right answer is not a preparation for life.

Correct answers say you know what has been done before. Innovation and growth come from thoughtful questions, and not questions which can be answered with a Google search or by asking Alexa. In fact, they might never be answered, but the pursuit will bring new knowledge and understanding – and perhaps more questions.

How can we apply this in our work as librarians and to ourselves? In our super busy lives, our own curiosity has been diminished. Who has time to go down a research rabbit hole (curiouser and curiouser, indeed) to explore a topic of interest? And yet, curiosity is how we continue to learn and grow. It feeds us intellectually in a way food does intellectually.

To satisfy our curiosity, Diana Kander suggests we cultivate Deliberate Curiosity. Being deliberate connotes focus and mindfulness. She proposes 3 Questions CEOs Should Ask to Practice Deliberate Curiosity. Answering these questions can speed up our growth and help us achieve our goals. You may not think of yourself as a CEO, but when it comes your library, your role as the one guiding and standing for the Vision and Mission makes you just that. Kander asks us to consider:

  1. What are your blind spots? We have become more aware of having blind spots as we look at our implicit biases, but we have many more places where Kander says there are “gaps in how we see the world.”  If you’re curious where yours are, try asking for feedback. Frame your questions to give you honest, worthwhile answers. Don’t ask teachers if your collaborative lesson went well. Ask what you could have done better, what they learned, or where they struggled. Ask students which part of the lesson they liked – and which they didn’t.
  2. How will you know what’s not working? Kander refers to the advice often given to authors to “kill your darlings,” and labels projects that yield far less than the effort that goes into them as “zombies.” Do you have a favorite unit or project you look forward to every year? When was the last time you revisited it? If it takes a lot of time but isn’t giving you the results you need, it could be a zombie. Your administrator assesses you each year, but you need to do a self-assessment. Have you fully integrated EDI into your program? Do your programs support your Mission statement? Do stakeholders know what ethical principles are foundational to your program? How well are you communicating with all stakeholders? Answering these kinds of questions will help you get curious about what is and isn’t working.
  3. How do you create accountability? We have become far too accustomed to doing things alone. As the African proverb states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”  You need a mentor, or, better yet, mentors, a professional learning network (PLN) and other supportive resources. Get curious about where you can reach out and talk to leaders. Think of the people in your life you trust. You’ll want even more than feedback from them. You want to bounce ideas off them and hear their suggestions. And you want them to hold you to your goals once you set them. They’ll also help you get curious and creative about how to improve by asking what is missing that needs to be included or what is new that should be and hasn’t been incorporated. Schedule regular time with these mentors. It doesn’t have to be long, and it could be monthly or done with a check in of some type. The important thing is to be accountable to them – and yourself.

Don’t let your curiosity wither. Be deliberate at including it in your life and your program. Combine curiosity with knowledge and see how your program thrives.


Leading Today, Tomorrow and Beyond

Success feels good – it feels great. You worked hard to get there. Unfortunately, if you get too comfortable with what you have achieved, you risk to sliding backwards.

Remember Blockbuster? Xerox? Blackberry? Sears? They were all leaders in the field for a significant period and are nowhere today. These giants, and many others along with them, didn’t see the change coming and didn’t adjust and move forward. You don’t want your library to suffer a similar fate.

As lifelong learners we must keep our leadership focused on the future or our libraries will be rooted in the past. “We have always done it that way” leads to stagnation. Policies, procedures, and programs must be reviewed regularly and be open to change and new ideas.  Equity, SEL and other current issues need to be thoroughly integrated into the library program. What else is happening? How can you predict where you need to go?

One way is to think laterally. Expand your reading beyond library and education issues by looking at what is happening in business and technology. Consider how new developments and concerns in those areas might impact libraries and schools. From this you may find unique inspiration to bring into your school.

In How to Keep Learning as a Leader, David Burkus presents four ways in which you can be ready for what may be coming next.

  1. Linger on Failure – Take the time to notice what you learned, achieved and will do differently as a result of setbacks. Accept your failures as part of your process – and proof that you’re growing as a leader.. Failure is feedback when you know how to use it. It isn’t comfortable to review your mistakes, but this is not about being comfortable. It’s about growing and learning.
  2. Stay Curious – Listen, read, view, and keep learning. A random conversation can give you a new idea. Watching television or seeing a movie can start an unanticipated thought process. You just need to be open to the possibility.  Burkus talks about listening to experts in different fields. The wider your scan of the environment, the greater your opportunity to discover something new. It doesn’t have to be a deep dive into these subjects, unless you uncover a treasure you want pursue.
  3. Experiment – Put your new idea into practice. If it only stays in your head, tomorrow will have arrived before you are ready for it. Yes, you will fail sometimes (see #1) but the trying is worth it! Burkus suggests creating a decision journal and log what you decided to do. What was your intended outcome? Did it work? Can you tweak it? The journal can give you a record of your thinking and how productive it is.
  4. Cultivate Conflicts -This is the scariest step. It doesn’t mean instigating them but it does mean developing your awareness of them. We live in highly polarized time. While you don’t want to engage, listening can lead to amazing opportunities. The more you know about how others around you think and why they do, the better able you are to anticipate resistance to different ideas and projects. Knowing where pushback is likely to arise, you can plan. You might make modifications, provide background information, or include others in the planning process, which always a good idea.

In the words of Fleetwood Mac, “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow/ Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here…Yesterday’s gone.” Be staying curious, learning from setbacks, trying new things, and listening to those around you, you’ll be ready for tomorrow and continue to grow and thrive as a leader.

ON LIBRARIES: Growth Mindset + Agency = Learning

Growth mindset and agency, familiar terms in the business world, are among the newest buzzwords in education and are part of our new National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries.  As a leader, you want to show you understand both terms and incorporate then in how you guide students through learning experiences.

At the heart of Growth Mindset is that old aphorism, “If you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are right.”  The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset.  The students who feel they are no good at math or the ones who hate books and reading are displaying a fixed mindset.  Unless their mindset is changed, it is an impassable barrier to learning.

Fear of failure is a large part of their attitude.  This may seem contradictory, but if they announce in advance they are unable to do something, they get some justification when events prove them right.  It’s not their fault. They are just not good at doing that task. As librarians, we need to develop and encourage a growth mindset in those with a fixed mindset, and many of your students have that barrier in place.  

By contrast, it’s amazing what can be achieved when students develop a growth mindset.  Consider a young athlete who wants to excel in the sport of his/her choice.  Getting up early to attend an extra practice is not a problem.  It’s a way to master techniques.  They will work on their own to fix any flaws their coach has detected.  Even success is not the end.  They want to get even better.

Imagine what this would look like in an academic setting.

In National School Library Standards for Learners, School Librarians, and School Libraries the Key Commitment for Shared Foundation V. Explore is “Discover and innovate in a growth mindset developed through experience and reflection.”  It is up to you to provide those experiences and times for reflection. Take the time to look at your program and ask yourself what are you already doing, and what do you need to do differently?

Last week’s blog talked about Build[ing] Your Listening Skills. Use those skills to tune into what your students are saying – or muttering. Matt Zalaznick in an article entitled Growth Projections in K12 suggests when a student says, “I can’t do this,” the teacher redirects the remark by saying, “You can’t do it yet.”

When a frustrated student says, “Why can’t I just Google this?”  Say, “Because you are smart enough to know that won’t get you to the best answer to your question.” Prepare some phrases you can use as necessary. “Look how much better you are at doing this. You are on your way.”  “You got the first hard part done.  Now you are ready for the next challenge.” The more we can, we must encourage that growth mindset.

Zalaznick offers 10 Growth Mindset Principles. The last three are to share with administrators. Here is his list and my comments on them:

  1. Use positive language – Watch out for absolutes, e.g. “You always…, You never …”
  2. Let students assess their own work – Rubrics let them know what the important aspects of the project are and guide them into self-evaluation
  3. Let students choose daily class activities – Have a list of possibilities. You will learn what your students’ interests are very quickly. As well as what they might be avoiding.
  4. Allow students to retake tests – If the purpose is having them be successful, why not?
  5. Try to reduce the number of F’s and zeros given – That shouldn’t be an issue in the library.
  6. Recognize students have diverse backgrounds, and this is not an obstacle to academic achievement- That affects your growth mindset. Too often we make judgments about what kids can achieve based on their background.
  7. Establish personal trust with students – Trust is the foundation of all relationships.
  8. Make honors and other advanced classes more inclusive.
  9. Make homework optional, but show students the connection between practicing skills and passing tests.
  10. Include more administrators, teachers and other staff in building and district decisions.

When you build a growth mindset in students, you create the path for them to develop “agency.” That is, they become the directors of their learning rather than the teacher. In essence, they have ownership of their learning and meaningful and lasting learning is the result.

Mark Wagner explains in What Does Student Agency Mean? that when agency is present students are “making, creating, doing, sharing, collaborating, and publishing in ways that are meaningful to them, using real-world tools.”  This sounds like our new standards, which means it typifies a dynamic school library program.

Makerspaces are the tip of the student agency iceberg.  It shows what happens when students take charge of their learning.  Agency also is the result of a well-designed inquiry-based unit. To be truly inquiry-based, students must use the topic to develop their own questions to research.  That puts them in charge.

And don’t panic if the terms seem new. The truth is, many of you have already been doing all this.  The process is at the heart of good teaching and already at the core of your vision and mission.  To build connection and community, let your administrator know our new national standards supports developing a growth mindset and student agency, and you are prepared to work with teachers on integrating it into the curriculum. Show him/her ways you are already doing this and whatever plans you have for the coming year.