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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

Marjie Knudsen's picture

Wonderful Post. For more on learning and living with curiosity check out > Curious? by Todd Kashdan. It is a book that I wish all parents would read.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

The time spent igniting students' attention, curiosity, and motivated interest is more than regained in the engaged, focused behavior (and subsequent long-term memory) one sees when children are joyfully, successfully learning. Link to my article: The neuroscience of joyful learning from my website:

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

As I recall - it was several years ago - the STEM analysis noted specifically that the failure of teachers in US 8th grade science classrooms was the failure to engage in reflection. (As compared to teachers in countries where scores were higher. Though it was probable that the low number of degreed teachers in science was also an important factor.)

NCLB is an externality.

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

I fight for the ARTS in EDUCATION! Taking children tothe history and appreciation of drawing, painting, theatre, photography, radio, TV, and FILM is just fabulous for stimulating children to see history, social mores, a discovery of inventions/inventors, understanding a history of technology, learning about contributions people who changed the world.

The arts connect to all the subjects which every teacher teaches. It is so important. And teaching the arts is so enjoyable. More important, children love the arts. And the benefits for each child are priceless.

There are siimply no excuses. The arts must be taught. Every child deserves to have their creativity tapped in education, as well as learn to read, write and compute.

Ironically, there is no need for drilling and it is built into the arts to reflect and learn to connect the dots to history and science.

And, the most wonderful aspect of all is how students share their experiences with their peers immediately. That sharing is contagious and builds self-esteem. It is a win-win situation creating curiosity for peers, teachers and parents.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

I confess, I have a Cinematography class as well as teaching technology-associated affairs. I argued (above) that art is a good way to maintain an element of creativity in the curriculum. The main article however, argues for integrating creativity into project learning modules and implies this is adequate to instill creativity necessary for the purposes of k-12 education.

If the article espouses eliminating the arts in favor of integrated creative exercise, it makes some dangerous assumptions.

First of all, it assumes adults in general to have the creative capacity to design and foster this activity. Second, it assumes the ability to judge creative effort.

On the capacity issue, I believe education in general to have several pathologies. One of them is misunderstanding creative processes on an institutional level. The article steps dangerously close to this precipice. That plays into the second count because it presumes knowledge of a field to be - and here is my real ontological problem ;-) - complete and easily measured by rubric when it is really a matter of art in the sense of "what is real art." You can give me a rubric that asks me to measure art, and I will measure it.

On the count of institutional pathology; I passionately believe the ability of the general population (administrators are general population) to be critical of art is laughable. I'm not going to support that because it could get offensive.

I'm not saying the main article is wrong about the creative nature of project-based learning. I'm just saying that getting off the ground with it in the US is a huge challenge institutionally. I don't believe the human capital exists if we tell the art teaching staff to get jobs packing tomatoes.

When I introduce sketching panels for storyboarding to my freshman class and ask who in the class has been exposed to drawing in one or two point perspective, the answer is 2 out of 25. When I draw an example on the board, another 1 hand goes up. This means that in 9 years of art, only 10% of them can draw the interior of a room. My students come from all over the district (265,000 students), so I know there are 1 or 2 7th grade art teachers, teaching perspective. This is not just my opinion. I have asked the 2D and 3D teachers who teach the AP courses about their experiences. Their opinion is similar to mine.

One more observation. A couple of weeks ago I heard Ken Robinson speak about how our system crushes creativity out of the student population. It isn't deliberate, but it is true nonetheless. Expecting the people that think they are actually working to create a population of creative, smart kids while simultaneously stamping on their little souls, to implement this change is disingenuous.

Saying all it takes is lesson planning while the structure of the organization is designed to push in the exact opposite direction is self-defeating.

Carol Parker's picture
Carol Parker
7/8 Drama, Film, Honors & Regular Language Arts

Wow, a lot to think and reflect on/ mostly to assume that adults in general have the creative capacity to design and foster this activity. BINGO!! This is the largest part of the problem. The ones that I see resist are the dear people who did not receive the ARTS in any of their education.

I agree with you full heartedly. I cannot say it better than you. Sir Ken is amazaing. I learn so much from him. And, I see depressed children every day and I know the arts could help them have a reason to come to school and discover at least one thing they love to do. Thank you for your schollarly response.

Bob Calder's picture
Bob Calder
Internet and Society

When we discuss creativity, experiences from the past inevitably bubble up. One is from college, when we used to make fun of the elementary ed majors that had no clue in studio courses. They generally could recognize art but had no idea how to talk about it or conceive it. I think this speaks to the general discussion of attacking the arts. It is a bit like attacking evolution. People that do it are simply ignorant because they lack a mental framework for using it.

This makes me vulnerable to deconstruction of course, but I think the ability to measure the creative utility of a concept is what distinguishes an artist. Persons with no ability can recognize art, but cannot recognize non-art.

That brings up the seond item. I bought a lovely steam punk bracelet for my daughter-in-law, becoming familiar with the website etsy in the process. It is a huge marketplace for small craftspeople. It has spawned an immensely popular site that uses a satiric take on art but is NSFW: regretsy. The author was surprised to be invited to etsy community meetings as she did not think her snide comments could be popular. She was wrong. The artists and craftspeople on etsy see her as the Simon Cowell of etsy.

She is the critical voice of the community. She says: "This is not art!" And that's my point. Recognizing and fostering creativity is not for people who think they can do it because they recognize and appreciate art.

Jason Dieter's picture

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.

Jennifer Bozic's picture
Jennifer Bozic
Second grade teacher

I really appreciate this post! I whole-heartedly agree that teaching through inquiry is the most effective way to capture and sustain students' attention and help students perform well on state assessments. I am a second grade teacher in Colorado. I strive to teach using inquiry on a daily basis. It is rare to find a student who will not participate and engage in lessons where his or her own curiosity is valued and incorporated into the learning. I am always amazed at the high quality of my second graders' questions and their desire to find the answers for themselves. However, this "magic" did not happen right away. When our school opened two years ago, we had a student body that came from many different schools. Our school decided to work towards becoming an authorized International Baccalaureate School. At the heart of the IB program is inquiry-based learning. This type of learning was new for many teachers and students. As the students and staff get more comfortable with inquiry, we are seeing improved student achievement.

I once saw an excellent example of a way to get students used to asking and refining their questions at a workshop on inquiry teaching. The presenter put an object into a box. Our job as workshop participants was to ask yes or no questions that would help us figure out what was in the box. The first time we tried this exercise, our questions were very basic. Eventually, after a few tries, our questions got more sophisticated and it took fewer and fewer questions to figure out the object. I have tried this with students and have found it to be a great way to introduce asking high-level questions.

Here's another idea I got from my principal-I have a chart in my room with four boxes-What I think I know, What I want to know, Learnings, and Misconceptions. At the beginning of a new unit, I ask students to write on a sticky note what they think they know about our new concept and on another sticky note what they want to learn. They then put the notes in the appropriate boxes on the chart. Throughout the unit, they add sticky notes to the Learnings section. As they learn new things that contradict what they thought they knew, they move those sticky notes into Misconceptions. Students are free to get up and put or move a sticky note on the chart at any time. Previously, I was using a traditional KWL chart (know, want to know, learned). The addition of "misconceptions" prompts students to be more reflective about their knowledge.

I look forward to hearing other ideas about inquiry teaching!

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