Matt Murrie works in curiosity. If that sounds like a strange thing to say, he understands.
It’s kind of a new concept, at least as far as how he spends his workdays — traveling the world giving custom presentations and keynote addresses (even TED talks) on how curiosity can improve everything from the doctor-patient relationship to private business to the learning environment for students and teachers.
That last one is really where Murrie’s heart lies. As the son of teachers — Steve and Nancy Murrie, Union — and as a teacher himself, Murrie is passionate about how to get kids learning more and, at the same time, teachers enjoying their work more.
About five years ago while he was teaching at Westminster College, Murrie had an idea that the key to reaching both of those goals was curiosity.
“All of my experiences started coming together . . . on this idea of curiosity — as an energy, as something that we can use for learning, for innovation, really a new way of looking at the world,” said Murrie, a 1994 graduate of Union High School who now lives in California. “So I started working on how could we develop processes, methodologies, and work directly with students, teachers, entrepreneurs, private businesses to use curiosity to help them innovate or come up with new ideas and take bigger actions.
“We are all born curious,” Murrie commented. “The problem is our current education system and even a lot of the ways we have developed over time puts a lower value on curiosity and actually starts pushing the curiosity away.”
‘Book of What If . . . ?’
Two years ago Murrie wrote a book with Andrew McHugh about curiosity, “The Book of What If . . . ? Questions and Activities for Curious Minds,” for children ages 8 to 12.
They pose nearly 100 “What If?” questions, from wacky to serious:
“What if you lived in a floating city?” “What if the first Olympics were a science competition?” “What if people lived for only one day?” “What if there were no school?” “What if people got their energy from the sun?”
Each question includes a short exploration of the idea and an activity to incite curiosity and exploration.
“ ‘The Book of What If . . . ?’ is designed to spark your curiosity on certain ideas and open windows into worlds you may not have realized exist,” Murrie and McHugh write in the preface. “Your job now is to go beyond (far beyond) reading it. We expect you to interact with the information between these covers . . . the world is waiting for you!”
Begins With Questions, Ends With Actions
It can be fun, and kind of easy once you get the hang of it, to spend time wondering “What If” scenarios. But if that is all anyone is doing, it will amount to nothing, said Murrie.
“What makes my work different is it starts with ‘What If,’ with a curiosity, but at the end of the workshop, at the end of the day, there are actions, there are deliverables, there’s something that people are actually doing,” he said.
“The cliché is turning ‘What If?’ into ‘What Is.’ Anybody can come in and just ask a crazy question, but the methodologies and processes that I develop actually help people go from asking the question to actually doing something concrete, tangible about it.”
Last November, Murrie was in Mexico City working for MIT to deliver a keynote address on how curiosity can be an innovation engine for entrepreneurs across Latin America.
Soon he will be flying to Branson to work with a group of doctors on using curiosity to help them bring back the doctor-patient relationship now that computers and tablets have become so prominent in medicine.
Murrie said he customizes each of his curiosity workshops depending on the needs of the client, which have included everything from Fortune 500 companies to nonprofits.
“Anybody who is curious about curiosity, I’m more than happy to work with them — students, teachers, entrepreneurs, businesspeople,” said Murrie.
Connecting Classrooms Around the World
Murrie had been doing this kind of curiosity work for a few years when an ed-tech startup out of New York, Belouga, contacted him to create content and lessons for their free digital platform that connects classrooms around the world.
“Imagine if Skype and Facebook were combined,” said Murrie, but in a safe, controlled environment that is only open to teachers and students who are signed up with Belouga.
For the last year, Murrie has been taking content from his “What If . . . ?” book and using the principles of curiosity-based learning to develop lessons and activities for the Belouga platform.
“We have interactive lessons and activities that students can do that are all curiosity-based learning,” said Murrie. “We say it’s learning about the world with the world.
“So they are doing their science, their math, the things they have to do, but they are doing so in a way that they are learning about other countries and cultures, and in a way that’s active,” he said.
And to make the experience more fun, the lessons are all “gamified,” meaning students earn points with Belouga for every lesson they do. And those points can add up to achieve various “prizes” for their classroom or school.
Or classrooms and schools can opt to donate their points to another classroom or school with a greater need than theirs.
“We work with 78 different countries, a lot of them in the developing world. Some need laptops, some need Wi-Fi, some need walls. Some need water,” said Murrie.
“So they can work together, and then Belouga gives them the things that they need.”
Belouga will be releasing its lesson plans in September, but a few are in beta testing right now.
One involves a nonprofit out of Tanzania called the Big Life Foundation.
“They want to protect the elephants and stop the ivory trade,” said Murrie. “So they provide us with a bunch of videos and pictures of people in the region, and we have several different lessons . . . math, science, social studies, and most hit on multiple subjects.”
A lesson on the Maasai Tribe includes photos of them as a nomadic, pastoral group, and includes definitions of the words nomadic and pastoral with photos illustrating what they mean.
“We are trying to make connections back and forth, so I’m thinking specifically in rural Missouri, students here can see these people who are looking so differently from them, but then they read how they are nomadic and pastoral, that they’re farmers, and they’ll think, ‘Hey wait, we have farmers here. They have goats, but maybe we have pigs,’ ” said Murrie.
“The next slide is that they face issues of water . . . and the Missouri students might think, ‘We have water to drink, but it floods here.’ So as they’re learning about this other group, they are making these connections and learning new vocabulary.”
Another lesson involves watching a four-minute video on the tribe’s rites of passage for boys to become men. It used to be that they had to go hunt and kill a lion, said Murrie, but now lions are protected.
Instead they came up with something called the Maasai Olympics, where they do other activities connected to their culture to prove their manhood, Murrie explained. The mission for the Belouga students then is to come up with a new sport or activity that is connected to their culture or where they are from and write a description of it.
“So they are taking what they learned of the Maasai but they are creating something from themselves and their own culture and posting it,” said Murrie.
Those missions can be shared on the platform with all of the Belouga classrooms.
Murrie also created a lesson to help students understand what poverty really means.
“A lot of people think it’s not having money, but then you start realizing that poverty also affects health, education and other things,” he said. “And here in the U.S., not having money is different from not having money in Macedonia or Argentina or another country.”
When students see the statistic that 70 percent of the world lives on $1.90 or less a day, “that’s when the light bulbs start going off,” said Murrie.
He has seen students, without being told to do the math, reach for the calculators to see how much $1.90 is in their currency. Then they have discussion on what that amount of money can buy in their community, what if their whole family had to survive on that amount each day and what changes they would have to make in their lives if that were the case.
“So they are not just doing math and calculating, but they are thinking in a way that develops empathy and critical thinking,” said Murrie.
Global Pen Pals Too
Teachers can use Belouga to approach all of the learning opportunities they present in the classroom or it can be just one part of their day, like a pen-pal situation.
“A student has to have the teacher register with Belouga first. She gets the code, shares it with her students, and then they answer a series of questions to gather information on their culture and experience, such as ‘How do you celebrate a certain holiday?’ ” said Murrie.
“We match them with other students their age who have similar interests around the world, and then it becomes a pen-pal experience. So if a teacher doesn’t want to do anything more than that, it can just be a global pen pal,” he said.
One class doesn’t have to be pen pals with students in another entire class. Rather the students are paired up individually, so in one class students can have pen pals from all different countries.
“And that teacher still has administrative control. She can see which students are active and what they’re posting and everything,” said Murrie.
“The teacher also can message directly with other teachers, so if they want to develop lesson plans or share ideas, they can do that,” he said. “And we also have a video conferencing feature.”
He noted how recently a class in Macedonia connected with a class in Nigeria. The Macedonia students stood up and sang their national anthem, and then the Nigerian students did the same.”
100 Percent Free for Schools
Belouga is 100 percent free for schools. There is no fee to sign up.
The platform currently is funded by venture capitalists who are paying the monthly expenses as Belouga is being developed, said Murrie. In the future, the platform will generate revenue in two ways.
First, through a certification program for teachers in need of continuing education and professional development courses. This will be open to teachers all over the world.
Second, through strategic partnerships with groups and organizations that have CSRs (corporate social responsibility) or something in the world that they care about and want to help make a difference with.
Partnership With United Nations
Last month, Belouga formed a partnership with the United Nations to use curiosity-based learning and the platform to be the certification program for its Sustainable Development Goals, which are like a worldwide “to do” list to accomplish by 2030. The list includes things like poverty, hunger and clean water.
“We are making partnerships directly through the Ministry of Education for entire countries,” said Murrie. “We are meeting with all of these top government officials to institute curiosity-based learning.”
Murrie was recently in Macedonia, Colombia and Nigeria to meet with their ministries of education.
And when he was in Franklin County last month to celebrate his father’s birthday, Murrie reached out to as many area schools as would listen to him, and he had a positive response from several schools.
Inspired by Peace Corps Work
After graduating from UHS, Murrie earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Westminster College and a master’s degree in teaching English from Columbia University Teachers College. And from 1999 to 2001, he served in the Peace Corps.
He was assigned to Macedonia, where he taught English to high school students. And that’s where his understanding on the importance of curiosity to learning began.
“My work today is 100 percent inspired by my work in the Peace Corps,” said Murrie. “The process and methodologies I have really started developing before I even realized it while I was in the Peace Corps.”
No two classes at the high school where he taught English were alike. In one class, every student had a book and most of the students had a computer at home, he said. Then in the next class, nobody had computers at home and only half had books.
In the third class, none of the students had books or computers. They also didn’t have water, and they would ride donkeys to town and stay in a dormitory for the week while they went to school.
“My job as a teacher was to teach the same lesson, no matter what, and it was a struggle,” said Murrie. “We didn’t even have chalk for the chalkboard, and the disparity in resources was gigantic.
“What I found over time was that curiosity was the key. The textbooks didn’t matter. If we could identify the students who were curious, and then the ones who weren’t, find a way to get them curious, then we could get everybody paying attention, get them doing work and actually get them learning English, not based on what the book said we needed to teach, but what they were curious about at the moment,” said Murrie.
Around 10 years ago, Murrie returned to Missouri to work at Westminster College as an English professor. He taught literature, writing and eventually entrepreneurship, mainly to international students.
“I saw the same thing — if a student was curious, we could start doing something,” said Murrie.
In time, he began to transform those “random thoughts and ideas,” into methodologies and start writing about them.
And that became “What If . . . ?”
Today, Murrie is the executive director and “chief curiosity curator” for What If . . . ? 360, where the motto is “Turning What If . . . Into What Is.”
To learn more about Belouga or curiosity-based learning, you can contact Murrie by email at Matt@Belouga.org.
Local readers may know Murrie for a series of children’s books he wrote with his father, Steve Murrie, for Scholastic, “Every Minute on Earth,” “Every Day on Earth,” and “While You Were Sleeping.” The father-son team are currently are working on another book together and expect it will be out next year.