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How to Ignite Intellectual Curiosity in Students

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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

Comments (51)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer Whittington's picture

I have found that putting in the time to engage curiousity by tapping prior knowledge and allowing more student discussion and direction has definetly been worthwhile. Students are more attentive and ready to learn content.

Jessica Townsley's picture

One of the main concerns I hear from my fellow teachers is that students have terrible memories. I loved what you said about people remembering the ideas that they think about most. Too often in education we just tell students what we want them to know. They hardly think about it at all. They might memorize the concepts for the test, but after the test is over it is simply forgotten. We just adopted a new curriculum at the school where I teach that is much more inquiry based. I am very excited about the possibilities, but nervous about how students will react to a radical new approach to learning. Does anyone have any ideas for helping students get into the habit of learning through inquiry? Thanks for the ideas!

Linda Hegreberg's picture

I take into my classroom my own love for learning and that seems to get my students curious about learning. Following are a couple of examples: I recently received an interesting e-mail about Mars in August (I knew it was a hoax before I took this to my students). When I showed it to my students they became excited and curious and wanted to learn more about it. Not only did they learn that they can't believe everything they read, they also learned science information about our solar system. Another time I spoke with someone in the Philippines for customer service with a company with which I do business. Talking with the representative made me curious about her country. I discussed this with my students and we decided to do research about that country. This led to wanting to research about Mongolia as well, because one of our former teachers went there to work with the Peace Corps. We talk about what it is to be lifelong learners and they are discovering the joys of learning about things about which they are curious. Sometimes I use a movie to help the students get curious about a subject. We recently viewed Ghosts of Mississippi at the start of a unit about the civil rights movement and apartheid. I also do units across the curriculum. Their monthly essay assignments are often related to what we are studying in social studies or science. They learn about statistics (math) by using information from our research on the population information regarding South Africa. I also encourage the students to help teach each other. If they know they will need to know information in order to help others, they are more motivated to learn all the information they can about a subject. I'm always looking for creative ways to get my students curious so they are anxious to learn.

Janae's picture

Luckily most of my first graders are often curious on their own and I don't have to do too much to facilitate their curiosity. I have found just letting kids be kids in my classroom helps. When I teach sometimes I get silly with them and start talking to myself asking questions that I will find out by inquiry. This gets my students excited and want to be involved as well.

D. Whitney's picture

I'm enbarrassed to admit that, but other than band (we do have a great band program) it is true. I've recently started trying to encorporate music into my Humanities classes as a way to stimulate interest/curiosity in our content. I like History, but many of my students aren't all that interested, so I needed to find what they are interested in and combine it with what we are studying. When talking about the Civil War at the end of this last year I had the students listen to songs about war right on up through the Vietnam War. I then asked if they could find songs on our current conflicts and compare the two. There are some things I want to tweak, but so far it has been a great way to combine what my students are very interested in with what we need to cover.

Olivia Day's picture

Thank you for your thought-provoking article. Being a ninth grade English teacher, I see what teaching to the test accomplishes. One of my colleagues actually makes flashcards with standardized test facts for each student. Every week, the students are tested on a certain number of cards. Does this help them on the standardized test? The students say yes. Do they remember the facts after the test? Many students have admitted that they do not. Most importantly, the students do not care about the information. Their intellectual curiosity has not been stimulated.

Personally, my teaching could improve in this area as well. I fall back on the "shut up and listen" approach more than I should. Still, I do not think that the lecture approach is always bad. No one is going to argue that students need to be engaged and ask critical questions. However, just as I have had students need coaching on how to critically engage in lessons, I have also had students who had difficulty listening. Both are important in the job market and in life, so shouldn't there be a balance in the classroom?

Though I have felt pressure to teach toward the test, I try to avoid making it a major part of my curriculum. I agree that students retain more information when they are engaged in projects and asking higher level questions. I would love some more suggestions on how to incorporate more inquiry based lessons into my practice. Please let me know if you have any helpful articles or websites.

Gina Turman's picture

It is so important to develop students curosity at an early age. It is our job as teachers to instill the love of learning in our students. There are many ways to do this. I found the suggetstion of mixing it up very valuable. Students learning environemtn needs to be warm and inviting to encourage learning to take place. Furthermore, all or the majority of our students sense should be involved during the learning process in order to make it memorable and effective.

Whitney Kibler's picture

I was just having a conversation with a colleague about this earlier today. We were talking about how difficult it can sometimes be to include opportunities for students to be creative and curious in an educational setting when so many people are focused on test scores. I believe that students should be allowed and encouraged to be creative and curious because it gives them a deeper and stronger connection with the knowledge. They understand it on a whole new level when they are connected to it. Teaching students is not just telling them what they need to know, but leading them to discover it on their own. I understand that test scores are important, but aren't we supposed to be fostering a love of knowledge, not stress, frustration and fear?

Melisa Luke's picture

As a new member into the world of education, I am excited to see blogs such as these. Recently 'everything' is about the budget. While this is an extremely important issue, I am glad to see that the students are not being overlooked. Thanks for the post, I found it very interesting as a science teacher.

Fred Walk's picture

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.

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