Six ways to build greater curiosity in students
Of the many “habits of mind” that students need to develop in a 21st century world, one of the least developed is curiosity. Curiosity becomes an important attribute in a 21st century America where uncertainty and rapid change is the rule, knowledge explosion and search engines provide us with a vast array of knowledge instantly, and invention, innovation, and creativity are rewarded and encouraged in all fields of endeavor.
Unfortunately, experts and lay people often comment on the curiosity differences between young children and those that have attended school for a while. Pre-school children tend to be curious about everything, ask many questions, are willing to try new things, and in general are eager learners. However, as children age in school, they tend to become less and less curious. How does that happen? Aging may have something to do with it, but one can argue that the types of school activities foisted on children deadens the urge to be curious – that sitting in seats, raising hands, completing worksheets, being lectured at, and having less time to ask and answer questions all deaden curiosity.
So how can schools support a habit of mind that many say is extremely critical to the success of the United States in the future? Here are six suggestions for improving curiosity:
Focus learning around essential, driving questions.
“If the textbook has the answers, then what were the questions?” The development of essential questions as the starting points for units, and the development of driving questions as the starting points for projects, are both good ways to encourage students to see questions as the starting points for learning. Using Understanding by Design[i] and Project Based Learning[ii] curriculum design models encourages this approach.
Use wait time and pauses to ask for questions from students.
When teachers use strategies such as lectures and recitations, they should pause often and give students many opportunities to ask clarifying questions, make comments, or give opinions. At the end of a class period, give students time to write down three questions that come to mind as a result of the period’s lesson, and start the next class session by examining those questions.
Give students more choices and options.
Let students choose a book to read from among a number of options. Periodically give students the opportunity to read any book of their choosing. Develop an elective program with interesting options chosen by the students at the middle and high school level. Encourage students to search for, find, and bring to class interesting and relevant sources and resources related to a topic under study. Encourage students to choose from a number of enrichment programs that take place both during and after school.
Increase the number of non- graded assignments.
Grades often get in the way of curiosity. Periodically develop interesting assignments both for the classroom and as homework that promote curiosity and interest in learning but don’t count as part of grades. Presenting interesting puzzles, 20 questions games, and similar activities to students often support curiosity and interest in problem solving.
Give students the opportunity to choose interest-based projects.
Offer students at all levels the opportunity to do research projects that are based on their own interests, whether or not they are related to the curriculum. Help them develop their own questions, conduct research on the topic, and do a presentation of their own choosing for other students.
Use multiple strategies that support curiosity and creativity.
Give students the opportunity to brainstorm and then select their own essential questions that they wish to explore at the beginning of a unit;
Use Socratic questioning and interpretive discussions[iii] to encourage students to ask and respond to powerful questions;
Use creative problem solving strategies[iv] that start with a “messy” situation; define challenges, brainstorm alternatives, develop solutions, and create implementation plans;
Offer hands-on, minds-on inquiry-based science programs[v] that promote active learning around science questions and challenges;
Use problem- based learning strategies[vi];
Find out about and use the design thinking model[vii] that promotes the creation of innovative solutions to authentic, “real life” problems.
These six recommendations are just a few of those that might be used to foster curiosity. One hopes that these six will serve as a catalyst for brainstorming more strategies, and encourage teachers and schools to think about how, and to implement ways, to stimulate greater curiosity among students.
Given this important goal of building curiosity, every teacher can develop their own ways to increase student questions and foster curiosity, important goals both for the country and for individual students. The likely side effects of increased curiosity are a greater interest in school and learning and a more creative and innovative society.
[i] For Understanding by Design resources at ASCD, go to:
[ii] See Buck Institute, Project Based Learning model, http://www.bie.org
[iii] Two sources for Socratic questioning and interpretive discussions are Touchstones and the Jr Great Books program:
[iv] For information about Creative Problem Solving strategies, go to:
[v] For one such program, go to: http://www.fossweb.com/
[vi] For more information about problem based learning, go to:
About the Author
Elliott Seif is a long time teacher, Understanding by Design trainer, author, consultant, former Professor of Education at Temple University, and former Director, Curriculum/Instruction Services for the Bucks County Intermediate Unit. If you are interested in exploring additional ways to improve teaching and learning, and help to prepare students to live in a 21st century world, go to his website at: www.era3learning.org