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  • Writer's pictureBethany Huebner

The 3 “Bees” to Creating a Curious Environment

Updated: Aug 5, 2019


Two years ago, I had a realization, I was doing this whole teaching and advising thing wrong. (This wasn’t the first and I’m pretty sure won’t be the last time I have a similar realization). It hit me like a ton of bricks after one of my third-year advisees left my office for their final advising session. She said to me, “I thought from the very beginning of PT school that I wanted to do outpatient orthopedics, but I now know I’m not smart enough to do that. So I’m rethinking and exploring other options.” I sat across her in shock, not knowing what to say. Should I talk her out of it? Should I find something encouraging to say? Should I refute it completely and provide her evidence? This is a student who wasn’t at the top of her class, but she always scored in the high 80’s and passed her practical exams with flying colors. I taught her in both of her orthopedics class and never once thought she wasn’t smart enough. Yes, she had to work hard and study hard…but we all do. Where did I go wrong? Why did she think she wasn’t smart enough?

Last week, I discussed how curiosity is a key to learning with how creating a question safe environment can be one way you can foster that curiosity. I also talked about a couple other ways to foster that curiosity that I will focus on in the coming weeks, but today I wanted to focus on the environment. After re-reading last week’s blog, I realized I fell into the trap of the curse of knowledge. I left you with a pretty abstract idea of creating a question safe environment, but no real actionable intel to execute tomorrow in your classroom. That changes today!

Here are some actionable ways you can create that question safe environment you want:

clinician to educator

1. Be vulnerable.

This will be the hardest, but most important step to take. I remember when I first started teaching, I felt like I had to create an environment where I was the expert so the students would see me as credible. I had to be perfect…all the time. I was young and inexperienced, so the only way they wouldn’t see through me was to put up a wall of expertness. When I would share stories in the classroom that related to the topic, I only shared the wins. I had plenty of failures in the clinic with patients, but I didn’t want them to know that. How could that possibly help my credibility? They were all looking to me for the answers and expecting me to know. If I didn’t, then what kind of professor does that make me? (Basically, a rhetorical question, but the answer actually is it makes you a pretty darn good professor). When I asked my advisee why she thought she wasn’t smart enough, she said, “Because I just don’t see myself ever being as good and smart as you and our other ortho professors are. You just always know the answers and you just get everyone better.” The pit in my stomach could not have been any deeper after hearing her words. My quest for credibility caused her and probably countless others to falter.

As the leader of your classroom, you are the role-model. You set the tone for your classroom from day one. You have the opportunity to demonstrate what a curious person looks like in your classroom by being vulnerable. Tell your win stories, but also tell your failures. Say “I don’t know” when you don’t and look it up and present the information the next time you are together. Take your failures and use them to discuss what you could have done differently. Ask the class questions about your failures, demonstrate that curious people reflect and ask questions. Your failures were an opportunity for you to learn, but if you use them in your classroom you can create exponential learning. Being vulnerable also makes you more relatable. When your audience can see you have experienced what they are experiencing you actually become a whole lot more credible. Don’t be afraid to share yourself because by doing so you are demonstrating that the environment is a safe place to fail, reflect, and ask why.

clinician to educator

2. Be present.

Have you ever noticed that inspiration or questions about something pop into your head at the most random times? How many of you solve the world’s problems in the shower? Or on the drive to work? Or on your morning run? I often find myself with all sorts of ideas and questions about things while I’m driving. I know, I know…I should be focused on the task at hand…driving…but I do let my mind wander a bit. Our students/patients are the same way. They intently listen throughout a lecture, voraciously writing notes and practicing the hand placements of various manual therapy techniques, but they don’t always have the time to actually process the information at that moment. Two days later, when they are reviewing the material, they all of a sudden have all these questions. But where are you? It can be difficult to find a balance between too much and not enough access, but being present is a key for your audience to know you are serious when you say questions are welcome. Being present can be represented in many different ways. You can be physically present. Office hours outside of class times, sitting with the students while they are eating lunch or studying, or even participating with them in community service/volunteer opportunities. You can be electronically present. Email is a great way to be present, but not have to be in their physical presence. This is a great way for students and/or patients to communicate their questions at the time they have them. You don’t have to respond right away (I often get email questions at midnight or later…I’ve been in bed since 9PM), but a response within 24 hours can mean a lot.

clinician to educator

3. Be inquisitive.

You won’t know if you are creating the environment you want without asking your audience. I can’t count how many times I thought an activity or game would create the learning outcome I sought after, but after asking for feedback I did not come even close to achieving the outcome. Sometimes things we think work well for one group doesn’t work at all for another. I’ve learned that each one of our cohorts have a different class personality and interpret the exact same activity very differently. Asking for their feedback can provide you with what the view looks like from the student’s chairs. It doesn’t always mean you change your activity because they didn’t like it…on the contrary, sometimes things students don’t like are actually the best for their learning. Getting feedback allows you to adjust your behavior, your content delivery, or other techniques that best fits that audience to create the environment you want.

Asking your audience in a big group can sometimes provide you with the information you are looking for, but often honesty doesn’t completely come with those answers. You have the power to give them a passing grade or not…so they may not want to be completely honest. Anonymous feedback forms at the end of the semester can also be helpful to find the feedback you are looking for; however, they are at the end of the semester which may not allow you time to create the meaningful changes you would like to. A mid-semester feedback opportunity can be extremely helpful, especially if it is ran by a colleague who is not in your department. You can ask this colleague to ask some probing questions like, “Does this professor create an environment that is welcome to curiosity? How or how not?” “What are the strengths of the course? What are the areas that need to be improved?” All of these questions can provide you with some actionable areas to improve and implement the next class period. And do your colleague a favor…run the feedback session for them in their classroom.

I often find myself wondering about the advisee I spoke about at the beginning of the blog. Was I able to salvage her thoughts about how successful she could be in whatever setting she chose to work in? Did I do or say enough to encourage her to reconsider? That is a failure that has taught me a lot about the type of professor and teacher I really want to be.

What ways do you create a question safe environment? How do you foster curiosity?

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