Talk About Teaching and Learning
October 29, 2013, Volume 60, No. 11
Balancing Passion By Cultivating Curiosity to Create Engagement
Sarah H. Kagan
Interested learners are what teachers wish for, right? Well, yes. And no. While teaching someone who is passionate about a subject offers early rewards, I find challenges emerge as the teacher-learner relationship evolves. Passion often translates into a premature and sometimes overreaching confidence in knowledge about the subject at hand. Such intensity on the part of the learner may actually block rather than enhance learning. Even worse, a truly passionate student could become disaffected before becoming engaged.
I think a lot about passion and engagement as I work with a wide variety of students. I teach a capstone course for senior undergraduates in our Nursing Honors Program; a student-run, advanced qualitative research methods collective for PhD students; and a comparative elder care course that includes students from Penn and the University of Hong Kong—an entire semester in Hong Kong in seven days. Along with these “bricks and mortar” courses, I recently taught Penn Nursing’s first MOOC “Growing Old Around the Globe”—OldGlobe for short—with my colleague, Anne Shoemaker. In addition, I give several lectures each year on aging, cancer, and qualitative research to nurses and students across the country and in places around the world as far flung as Oxford, England and Yerevan, Armenia.
What I teach and where I teach tells you something about the learners with whom I work. Learners whom I teach run the gamut from Penn undergraduates and healthcare providers to public health students and now MOOC participants from around the globe. All come to our initial encounter in real-time or virtual classrooms with interest—no matter how limited or passionate—and experiences—in which they always find relevance for the subject matter at hand. I’ve learned that passion may turn into blinders if I am not cautious. The relevance they find is not always useful, unless I find means to engage them and overcome presuppositions.
What learners bring to a subject varies widely and relates through tangents and circumstance. Think about it this way: if most learners knew as much as they espouse knowing, they wouldn’t really need much of what is being taught. Nevertheless, interest and passion often translate into a way of knowing and a sense of knowledge possessed. A good example came up frequently in OldGlobe. Dedicated interest and even fervor drove those who signed up on Coursera for our global conversation on aging people, communities and societies. Some of them considered themselves old—and had lived the experience—and others possessed academic and professional background in aging. Many declared they knew about aging. How to get learners thinking in new ways without putting them off is the challenge prior interest and experience sets up.
To be honest, Anne and I didn’t deliberately and actively set out to meet that challenge of engaging without being off putting. In the end, though, OldGlobers—or Globers as they came to call themselves—reported learning more than they expected and being surprised about how much they learned despite feeling their prior knowledge was strong. This realization occurs quite often when I teach qualitative research methods to students in nursing or public health: “I thought I knew these methods but you showed me how much more I had to learn.” What catalyzes such self-reflection for a learner? Teaching so many different kinds of classes leads me to believe that self-reflection is about engagement and curiosity.
Engagement for the learner, especially one who is deeply interested and passionate seems to involve a tension between what is known and the desire to know more. I think that the sense of what is known gives a feeling of knowledge validating interest. As a result, then, the sense of what is known that a learner brings to a learning activity is fragile. Highlight gaps and myths within that sense and you risk losing the learner altogether. The point on which that tension between what is known and the desire to know more balances is curiosity. The core of the tension and consequent challenge to teachers is cultivating curiosity within learners.
My teaching reveals to me myriad examples of how curiosity overcomes the surety—and sometimes the bravado—of passion to incite desire to know more, better and deeper. Sometimes learners respond to the well placed example that reveals new dimensions in a topic. On other occasions, the chance to ask a question that posits what the learner knows in opposition to what you are teaching holds the learner long enough to incite critique and helpful dissonance. The mechanism of curiosity is generally individual. However, principles for cultivating curiosity feel constant to me. Here are those on which I rely most often:
• I show my passion. Frankly, I cannot teach anything for which I don’t have passion. So I let it out and hope that learners resonate with my passion. Occasionally, I tire of comments which most commonly come after a lecture: “I’ve never heard anyone so passionate speak” or “I admire your passion.” Always said with some dubiousness, I figure I at least left a lasting impression.
• I show my own learning. In my world, there is always more to learn. Whether in aging, any of my clinical specialties, or in qualitative research methods, I love to teach mostly because I love to learn and relish watching others find the same joy. Modeling love and joy by confessing when I don’t know and daring those learning with me to teach me works well.
• I remain visible and available. Having to seek out a teacher might make the more fragile learner—often the one with the greatest swagger—more reticent. Teaching in places where asking questions is seen as disrespectful or in institutions where English is the language of instruction but is a second or third choice for all but me reminds me again and again that visible and available is generally simple. I walk around when I teach class, moving around from student to student so that we all feel more connected. I remember personal details about learners in seminars in the hope that each feels noticed, not called out. And, most recently in OldGlobe, I spoke to the camera and responded in the discussion forum as though I was in a small group tutorial. Several OldGlobers said they felt that Anne and I created an “intimate learning environment”—aim achieved!
• I model engagement. I’ve always thought one of the best ways to receive what you wish is to give it. I show learners how to disagree in civil and respectful terms instead of talking about it. I communicate in the respectful and engaged manner I believe is necessary in all inquiry and especially that of sensitive topics like aging. Again, some of this engagement is simple. If I want to read electronic communication about the topic that are respectful and considerate, then I write emails that invariably include a personal salutation, express gratitude for what the other brings to learning, and a closing that sets the stage for the next step.
Fundamentally, I believe my four principles advance curiosity by valuing passion and creating engagement. My application of them is fairly constant at this point in my career, but their results are not entirely consistent. I may misread a learner’s intent, judge the teachable moment imprecisely, or even just be plain tired. Engagement takes energy—now and then I become tired. More often, though, engagement returns energy. The moments where curiosity is almost palpable and learners are truly engaged show me that my teaching is actually held together with passion and curiosity.
Sarah H. Kagan is the Lucy Walker Honorary Term Professor of Gerontological Nursing in the School of Nursing and
is the recipient of a 1998 Lindback Award forDistinguished Teaching as well as a 2001 School of Nursing Teaching Award.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.