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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

MW's picture

Your post was very interesting and thought provoking. I like how you defer to the teacher for reflection. So often, we all see teachers wanting to blame the students, refusing to look within. I am a kindergarten teacher and try to have inquiry based lessons in my repetoire. I hope that I am laying the foundation for my student's coming years in school by teaching them to question and always continue learning. It seems to me that science lends itself better to inquiry lessons, but with kindergarteners, most are curious about many things so this principle can be used in a variety of situations. Thank you for making me think about my teaching and reminding me to reflect about my practices.

Amy Trawick's picture

I totally agree with the fact that student's curiosity needs to be ignited. So many activities that children are involved in today are planned and regimented to the point that they do not have an opportunity to think for themselves. They are told where to go, what to do, and how to do it. Creativity is a dying characteristic. Yes, high stakes testing has put a lot of pressure on classroom teachers. Much of our time is consumed with assessing, progress monitoring, remediation, and reassessing. It is a vicious cycle that consumes much of our time, as well as energy. Giving students time to think, explore and discovery is a wonderful concept that deserves further investigation. I look forward to reading the article Dr. Willis recommended. As a new school year begins, I would like to experiment with this type of learning and monitor its effectiveness as a tool to help students learn problem solving skills.

Judith S. Lee's picture

I enjoyed reading about the inquiry approach you are using with students. Have you seen this approach used with young elementary students? It sounds very invigorating. I like the utilization of clarifying questions and critical, analytical thinking.

How could I find out more about this technique and its use in young and/or upper elementary classrooms? The closest thing I think I have ever started is the Literature Circles. I have used these with second, third, and fourth graders. In the Literature Circles students are taught to question the author, and ask open ended questions to provoke thought beyond the obvious factual questions and answers. It took a little time to teach the process of the Literature Circles, but once we got beyond the basics, the students really seemed to enjoy the experience.

Thanks for sharing this information about igniting student curiosity.
Judy Lee

Judith S. Lee's picture

I enjoyed your comments about using an inquiry approach in the classroom. I especially liked the idea of students using clarifying questions and critical, analytical thinking. I would like to learn more about this. Do you know of anyone who is using the inquiry method with young elementary students?

The closest I think I have come to this is when we implemented Literature Circles with second, third, and fourth graders. Students were taught to ask open ended "fat" questions to spur conversation and to get beyond the obvious factual questions and answers. Students were also taught to question the authors.

It took a little time to teach the process, but once we got beyond the basics, the students really enjoyed it. Some of their discussions were quite in depth, especially when you consider the ages of the students involved.

Thanks for sharing.
Judy Lee

Carrie Caudle's picture
Carrie Caudle
Founder and Coach, ImprovEducation

I'd like to echo much of what has been said above. Through meaningful arts integration, students not only feel more motivated and engaged, but they are capable of understanding more complex relationships in a wide variety of content areas. What's more, developing an educational environment in which children WANT to come to school is a powerful act that promotes social change.

I explore the integration of improvisational theater in my blog: http://www.improv-education.com
I'd love to continue the conversation.

Chelsea Smith's picture

Great post! I am a 1st grade teacher in the state of North Carolina. My students tend to be curious characters and I'd like to think it has a lot to do with me. I am a very animated teacher and I think aloud a lot! If I am teaching a concept, I act as if I am lost and then form questions aloud. My students are intrigued by the idea that their teacher is talking to herself and then they instantly want to become involved. I attempt to incorporate this technique where ever I feel the inquiry based learning will come alive.

I model and teach my students how to ask questions. Its always been a mission of mine to teach my students how to think and not what to think. The inquiry process is a great foundation of teaching this mission because it allows for me to set up a hands-on learning environment in which my students have the ability to jump right in, so to speak.

-Chelsea Smith
1st grade teacher

Amy's picture

This is a lot to consider, as I myself have found, on occassion that I 'teach to the test.' There were several important points made in the comments that have ignited my curiosity and desire to attempt some different strategies in my classroom. If students understand the material, and understand good test taking strategies, then the standardized tests should become easier.

Chelsea Smith's picture

Great post! My 1st graders tend to be really curious characters. I'd like to think that has a lot to do with me. When I am teaching a concept I pretend that I am loss and think aloud to involve the participation of my students. Once they notice that their teacher is "talking to herself" they instantly want to get involved. The opportunities that I make of this allows my students to ask questions and it sets them up perfectly for the hands on activities that I construct for them.

I have made it my mission to teach my students how to think and not what to think. Inquiry based learning is a wonderful foundation for those curious minds.

Nicole Albamont's picture

Making lessons engaging and creative is so important for students continuous learning & inquiry. We, as adults, learn so much more when we are interested and actively engaged. While it may be important to teach for the standardized testing, its also important to tap into student's creative minds. It is possible to set aside time for interactive games and cover the same material that you would by "drilling" the students, but do so in a more kid-friendly manner.

Kait's picture

I enjoyed reading this blog because it made me think about how to structure my language arts classroom differently. I believe creating relationships with students will go a long way in engaging them in lessons as well. That is my number one way to try to engage students. If students feel comfortable enough in my classroom to be silly, stand up and read a written work, or even share their thoughts and feelings all in front of their peers, they are more likely to be interested in whatever I am teaching. I realize I need to give them more time to explore their own ideas of a lesson as well. That would be the biggest thing that I need to work on for the upcoming year: giving all of my students adequate time to come up with their own thoughts to share with the class, then actually including all of my students and not simply calling on the ones with hands raised because they know the answers. Interesting blog post!

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