Following curiosity; authentic learning | Ashley O’Brien

A student hand drew a diagram showcasing the symptoms of the Ebola virus. She did a great job. It was clear. It was informative. But as her teachers, Ms. Linda and I thought it would be a good idea to recreate it on a computer. It would look professional that way. So, as an industrious New Morning student, she set off to do this on her computer. First, she tried Google Docs. Then she tried Word. Frustrated with her lack of progress, she came back to us asking for advice on how to accomplish this. 

“Publisher,” I told her. I proceeded to give her, and a few other students in similar situations, a quick tutorial on some of the great features of the program, and off she went easily creating her diagram and able to create other diagrams as well. Other students used the program to make timelines, charts and posters. 

I never intended to teach Publisher. It wasn’t on my curriculum list. I don’t have a goal for students to know Publisher by the time they complete middle school.  But my students had a need and a desire to create something and Publisher was the best technology I knew to get the job done. 

This story is really exciting to me. The kids were excited to learn the program, because they were excited to make their diagrams and charts. They were motivated, interested and engaged. I know they are going to remember what they learned, and are probably going to continue practicing on the program or other programs on their own, now that they know such things exist. 

This story describes real, authentic learning and it happened because students were allowed to follow their own curiosity. 

This kind of thing happens all the time at New Morning, but it has happened especially during Museum, which we are now in the midst of. Museum is a one-of-a-kind month-long research project where students pick topics that they are interested in, answer numerous questions about their topics, and then build their own exhibits to display all they learned. 

The opportunities for students to follow their curiosity are endless just in the way Museum is designed. Students choose their own research topic, come up with their own questions; they are pursuing their own curiosity. I am, however, impressed with how many other opportunities I found along the way. Students in my class have uncovered YouTube channels, blogs, podcasts, in addition to books, magazines, and websites. We’ve emailed experts and celebrities. 

Whenever possible, we as teachers have told our students yes. Yes, use that. Yes, look that up. Yes, try to make that. Yes, reach out to that person and see what they say. The results are incredible. Students work diligently, and are proud of their results. This phenomenon is too great to let go when Museum is over. I want to make sure I continue this amazing process all year, with all my students, with the kids in my family. This is the design for successful learning. 

So, when students ask if they can try something, when they ask if something is worth knowing or doing, when they bring up something tangentially related to what I’m teaching from my curriculum list, I’m going to say yes. I’m going to help all the kids I know follow their curiosity because that is one of the things that makes life great.

Ashley O’Brien is a middle school teacher with New Morning School in Plymouth, MI. She can be reached at