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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Ignite Intellectual Curiosity in Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I personally have never seen a student that was not curious about something. I have seen many students who have suppressed their curiosity when they enter school to such an extent as to be nearly undetectable, but it is still there. Human beings are hardwired to be curious and being curious is a major activity of childhood and young adulthood (and yet recently more and more students would rather be curious-looking).

Mix It Up a Little

So if we notice students are not curious in our classes, then we should first look at what we are doing, or not doing, that might cause this to happen. Of course I have some suggestions of places to inspect first.

  • Is the classroom a bright, cheery, and inviting place?
  • In the design of our lessons, do we purposefully try to engage as many senses as possible?
  • As we teach, do we go to great lengths to include all students and not just the few who raise their hands?
  • Looking at our lessons, in general, is the student doing most of the talking and working?

If the answer to any of the questions is no, then getting students to be curious again is a relatively easy fix: just change what we are doing or not doing. If all of the answers above are yes, then the fix is still possible, but we have to patient. If we are trying to get our students to participate fully in the inquiry process, we have to remember that most likely, they have been conditioned to do the opposite of inquiry -- shut up and listen. Depending on the severity of the case, this may take a while to get them "unconditioned."

Inquire Within

Several years ago, I was involved with the Ford PAS program, which has an awesome business and STEM inquiry-based curriculum. We brought in 30 ninth graders, from three different schools, for a nine weeks summer course. The first week when students were presented the inquiry lessons, they did not know what to do. They just sat there, silent.

The Ford PAS folks had anticipated this and created a course to help student learn how to do inquiry. Since the instructors of the summer program had the students all day long, for the first week, they used this introductory lesson and basically trained them how to ask questions, brainstorm solutions, collaborate with their groups, and investigate possibilities. You would not have recognized the groups after nine weeks.

No one had to tell them to ask clarifying questions, critically analyze or research; it was automatic, and instead of silence, an energetic buzz of conversation abounded when they were given their final assignment.

My point in sharing this is that if you are just starting inquiry, and have all of your other teaching ducks in order, then just be patient and for heaven's sake, don't freak out because of the silence during the first inquiry lesson. You have to be willing to let them fail a few times before they get it. Students are smart and they will remember what it is like to be intellectually curious and they will appreciate the liberty that you are giving them.

The Standards and Testing

You may object by saying, "But I don't have time to play games or do projects (or to allow students to be curious). I have to teach them (drill them) on the content of the state standardized tests!" I say to you, "So...? What is your problem? The students are the ones that have to take the test, let them worry about it."

"Oh, so you get graded on how well your students perform? Then it is in your best interest to help the students reignite their curiosity so learning is easier and more enjoyable for everybody!"

Just so you understand where I come from, I believe that there are many things in the current educational system that need to be changed, however, state standardized testing is not one of them. I firmly believe that NCLB, although not perfect, is a great step in the right direction. I believe this because I have seen administrators and teachers, who, previously concerned only about local grades and behavior for some students, now are concerned with all students actually learning something.

Although we have a long way to go yet, at least the state standardized testing sets minimum standards for teachers to attain (notice I did not say students). The main hurdle now is to get teachers to quit teaching right up to the minimum standards, but instead, to inspire learning beyond the them.

Give Time to Explore, Think, and Discover

I am reading an interesting book by Daniel Willingham called, Why Don't Students Like School? that I think will help you reignite the flames of curiosity. Willingham gets to the crux of the matter right away: It is not the state testing that is doing the damage. It is the teacher's reflexive response to state testing. Too many teachers assume that the best and quickest way to get information into students' brains is to tell them what they should know and then expect them to know it.

Willingham also introduces in his book the concept that, "Memory is the residue of thought." This means that we remember most what we think about most. If the students are interested and inspired to think about things for prolonged periods, then memory is enhanced. This is where inquiry, constructivism, and curiosity come into play -- providing opportunities for students to think about what they are learning. In this way, memory is improved, students do better on standardized tests, and, guess what? Students enjoy learning! Problem solved.

How do you get your students to be curious and want to learn? Please share your thoughts.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Comments (51)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Carissa Martin's picture

I am a first grade teacher and this is my first experience with blogging. I am actually participating as part of my requirement for masters. However, I am thrilled with this assignment because it has opened my eyes to the wealth of knowledge available in blogs.

I agree with many of the comments, this is a wonderful post! Children really do benefit when teachers put in the extra effort to prepare engaging and enjoyable lessons.

Chelsea, thank you for the idea letting the kids she the teacher "talking to herself." I think this will be a great start my kids on the inquiry process and encourage them to become independent thinkers. I also think this is such a kid friendly and fun way to model the process.

Crystal Edwards's picture

First, let me apologize if this gets posted twice. I was having computer errors and didn't know if it went through the first time.
I enjoyed reading your blog about getting students interested in a subject and sparking their curiosity. If you haven't already, read the book "The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn," by Paula Denton, EdD. Its main focus is on using our voice and tone to talk to our students to excite them, achieve their goals, and make them want to excel in the work. Change requires work. One example in the book is: "My hope is that by the end of this year you will all be book lovers! I hope each of you discovers at least one book that you love so much, sometimes you'd rather read it than watch TV!" To many children, the idea of wanting to read a book over watching TV is unheard of. This teacher instilled in the children that she thinks they are capable of enjoying a book and reading it well. She grasped their attention and sparked a curiosity in them because they were excited to figure out what book they could love so much more than a TV show. She didn't dictate what book or how they were going to get there, she just believed in them. If we want our children to change the way they think about a subject or skill, we need to work at it! One focus is on envisioning- using language to inspire children to do hard work. Students need a "clear and engaging picture of what is possible, a new and exciting picture of them-selves" achieving bigger things and being successful. This style of talking can be used to start a new unit, a new year, a project, or simply a new math period. I encourage you to check out the book, it is very interesting and helpful and ties right in with what you are talking about!

D. Meyer's picture

I'm glad that it was mentioned that " it is in your best interest to help the students reignite their curiosity." I get very annoyed when I hear teachers complain about not having enough time to teach all of the content standards or do what they want to do in class. My theory has always been that if students are interested in what you're doing, they'll ask more questions and as a result create a deeper understanding of the content that we're all worried about to begin with. Now we just have to convince all teachers of this!

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Judy:

Thanks for sharing your expertise. I think every teacher, especially in middle school should know what you are talking about in your article. The RAS is a physiological and psychological concern to all teachers. I learned first of this reaction as simply and affective filter when I was teaching Spanish in high schools.

I want to point out, though, that there is such a thing as good stress and bad stress. Good stress is associated with challenges for which the student feels prepared or capable of overcoming. I hope the point you are making is that we have to avoid negative stress (embarrassment, helplessness, or fear), and increase good stress.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Check out my recent post about engaging & sustaining children's attention and motivated, memorable learning through CURIOSITY + PREDICTION Psychology Today Online: Want Children to "Pay Attention"? Make Their Brains Curious! http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/radical-teaching/201005/want-childre... is also the focus of my new book Learning to Love Math: Teaching Strategies that Changes Students' ATTITUDES and Get Results.

Free chapters and free study guide download at:

http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/108073.aspx[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Jason:

What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Adults learners are not different than youth learner: in order for them to learn, they have to be engaged. I have learned this to be true, but unfortunately, too many staff developers still do the chalk and talk to the front row of teachers while the stereotypical coaches sit in the back and read the paper. While many adult learners have a motivational advantage over young learners (the adults see the importance of the knowledge and are willing to suffer through the presentation), the young learners typically do not have to un-learn anything. The biggest oxymoron that I have seen is the typical college teacher education department that continues to perform lecture after lecture after lecture, then expect the teachers they trained to be creative, interactive and differentiated in the classroom. Go figure.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]We have recently begun really focusing on developing science labs that will help to teach the standards in our state. In piloting a few of those labs this last year, I can say that the enthusiasm of my students during these class sessions is refreshing and inspiring. Most of us teachers learn best when we get to participate fully in inservice or professional development classes. Why do we think our students should learn any differently? As the encouragement of lessons that foster inquiry in students continues, we can say with confidence that students learning and retention will improve as well.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Crystal:

Thank you for sharing that book. I will be looking into it. When I was an administrator I learned that some qualities of teachers are more important than others after I had hired some dissappointing teachers who interviewed well but were disasters in the classroom. I came to the understanding that if I had to choose between an experienced teacher that knows it all but doesn't smile, or an enthusiastic beginning teacher who is willing to learn, I would choose the latter immediately. Interestingly enough, I did not find that many enthusiastic experienced teachers,...hmmm...makes you think, doesn't it?

Being able to model love of learning and enthusiasm is a huge brain-based learning piece. Students follow teachers behavior. Plain and simple.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]First, let me apologize if this gets posted twice. I was having computer errors and didn't know if it went through the first time.

I enjoyed reading your blog about getting students interested in a subject and sparking their curiosity. If you haven't already, read the book "The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn," by Paula Denton, EdD. Its main focus is on using our voice and tone to talk to our students to excite them, achieve their goals, and make them want to excel in the work. Change requires work. One example in the book is: "My hope is that by the end of this year you will all be book lovers! I hope each of you discovers at least one book that you love so much, sometimes you'd rather read it than watch TV!" To many children, the idea of wanting to read a book over watching TV is unheard of. This teacher instilled in the children that she thinks they are capable of enjoying a book and reading it well. She grasped their attention and sparked a curiosity in them because they were excited to figure out what book they could love so much more than a TV show. She didn't dictate what book or how they were going to get there, she just believed in them. If we want our children to change the way they think about a subject or skill, we need to work at it! One focus is on envisioning- using language to inspire children to do hard work. Students need a "clear and engaging picture of what is possible, a new and exciting picture of them-selves" achieving bigger things and being successful. This style of talking can be used to start a new unit, a new year, a project, or simply a new math period. I encourage you to check out the book, it is very interesting and helpful and ties right in with what you are talking about![/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Fred:

Ultimately, you nailed it right on, mixing up things up is the ultimate in differentiation. Something will strike a chord with at least one student. I tried to envision "rolling curiosities" and came up with a number of very humorous images.

Thanks for commenting

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Good blog, I agree with mixing things up. In order to meet the needs and wants of different students and get their curiosities rolling, you need to try new ideas and strategies to meet all the different types of students and their interests in your classes.[/quote]

Riazhaque's picture
Riazhaque
Associate Professor (Emeritus)

I have established a Science Skills Center, see: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=149281 where everything that scientists use for doing science is displayed and made available to the students but under the guidance of a mentor. I do not believe in having them rediscover the wheel but start them onwards from the wheel. We have also taken science out of its subjects and reduced it to mere 150 simple concepts and skills which if learned first makes doing science a piece of cake.

Just know that the technology people did not give classes in text messaging and I-pod using or downloading music, surfing the net or joining and visiting on so many social network sites. They learned all this on their own by doing.

Science is no different. Just expose them to it much like the music and art people do for music and art. Fortunately, they have taken time out to create a teachable system which, unfortunately, the scientists did not do mostly because they got involved in research and did not consider that if science is to survive and grow, they would need a healthy supply of upcoming replacements. Graduate programs where the mentors use their advisee as a pair of hands to do their nitty-gritty work are not producing integrative and versatile scientists but mere clones of their mentors.

Scientists need to be broad based and diverse but that kind cannot be produced from our fragmented and highly streamlined educational system where we decide who does or does not need a particular course. With this format we are training workers, not thinking and wondering scientists. That kind will get produced only if we expose our students to science instruments, tools and procedures like musicians do to their students so they become real innovative musicians.

It is all very simple. Quoting Churchil: Experts are the ones who complicate simplicity. Also per Pasteur: Chance favors the prepared mind which means you have to be doing something when chance knocks on your door and you answer.

Lets systematize science teaching bringing it at part with music, art and sports all of which are highly systematized while science has been left out as a too difficult a specialty. It is certainly not as it is no different from cooking, washing and cleaning dishes. The only difference form a kitchen is that in the lab we have more gadgets!

Let science stand on its own two feet as an integrated whole yet intricately connected to the rest of our knowledge and to our day to day life.

Also let its knowledge be open to the people like it used to be during the early 1900 to about 1940 which made people knowledgeable who actively participated in creating a healthy society and an enviable economy.

Now that we are leaving people out and using them as mere consumers, they are not a boon to our society but a resented burden that the tax payer has to carry for ever on its shoulders supporting yet getting blamed for not doing enough...

Danielle Yurecka's picture

I enjoyed reading all of these posts. Children have a way to learning and last year I found out that one of the most key things to help a student with being engaged and involved is by connecting with them. I found that when I could relate to a student and their personal life or view I had "an in" with them. I found this to be great because they were always (for the most part) paying attention because they never knew if I could throw in something that relate to their interest. Wonderful tip and points made!

Danielle Yurecka's picture

I enjoyed this post great points and ideas. I found that one of the key ideas of having a student be interested is through getting to know them and their personal life. Being able to relate to a student is key because they feel comfortable to hold a discussion. it also helped to spike their interest because I was able to take material and relate it to them and their interests. Thanks everyone for sharing!

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