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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Wonder, Prediction and Student Engagement

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

A sense of wonder and the need to predict -- these are two of the qualities that enrich all of us. We wonder about big things (is there life on other planets?), smaller things (if I write to a friend that I've had a falling out with, will I get an answer?), and smaller yet (what will happen if I marinate my chicken in beer?). Not only is it fun to predict, but prediction is also a strong part of being safe (if the pot recently boiled, I should probably grab it by the insulated handle). The lure of prediction can be easily seen in fantasy football, which has almost replaced the actual games in energy and excitement for many fans.

These two qualities, wonder and prediction, can form the basis of making lessons motivating and full of learning.

The Hook of Curiosity

The powerful qualities of wonder and prediction can form the pillars of great lessons. The best lessons I have ever seen begin with arousing students' sense of wonder by asking questions that can't help but make them wonder. Great questions can evoke wonder even in our most unmotivated students. Questions with this ability are uncommon and usually built over time. Try finding two or three every year and build up your collection as time goes on.

To develop these kinds of questions, begin by juxtaposing things that typically don't go together and build a connection. For example:

  • Why don't "choose" and "goose" rhyme?
  • What does Martin Luther King have in common with algebra?

Obviously, great "wonder questions" have to connect to the upcoming lesson. They work like introductions to news stories. The newscaster always says something like, "Vice President Dick Cheney shot someone -- coming up right after this." Lead-ins like that make it extremely difficult to ignore the following story. But if the story that follows has nothing to do with the lead-in description, we are turned off.

Wonder leads to prediction. Not only do people love to predict, but prediction is a major part of most disciplines, and they even have their own words to describe it. Math has estimating. Science has hypothesizing. English uses foreshadowing. Another word for predicting is simply guessing, and we all like to guess.

One of the best aspects of guessing or predicting in the motivation process is that once we make a guess, we can't help but to want to know if we were right or how close we were. Have you ever taken a magazine test or quiz that has the answers upside down on a different page? In spite of the nuisance of checking our answers, many times we feel compelled to do it. (Sometimes I look to see if the magazine got it right.) The same works with students. If you can just get them to guess, then you have the student motivated to find the right answer. The result is learning.

Guiding by Guesswork

If you ask a student a question, and the student says, "I don't know," try to elicit a guess, even a wild one. No matter how crazy the guess is, it's the beginning of the student's connection to the content. Follow-up guesses can lead to more serious answers.

Teacher: Why do apples fall from the tree?
Student: I don't know.
Teacher: Take a wild guess.
Student: Birds carry them to the ground.
Teacher: Why does the bird take the apple down and not up? Can you guess?

I think you can imagine where the teacher is guiding the student. You can also disguise guessing in a different way. Here is an example that seems to work a vast majority of the time, even though it sounds goofy. I recommend trying it before judging it. You might be surprised.

Student: I don’t know.
Teacher: If you did know, what would you say?

Here is an example of a motivating algebra lesson based on wonder and prediction. I'm not including students' responses because you can easily use your own sense of wonder and prediction to fill in the answers to these questions:

  • Who knows who Martin Luther King is and why he is important?
  • Did you know that the foundation of his work has the same foundation as algebra? (A wonder question.)
  • OK, now get into small groups and see if you can guess why. (A prediction question.)
  • OK, who knows? Saul and Carrie? You're right -- they both are based on the principle of equality.

Here is another way to use prediction in both class and homework lessons. Try telling your students:

Tonight, you don't have to do any work for your homework. In fact, you are not even allowed to find the answers to the algebra questions on your homework sheet. Do no work -- just guess. (Prediction questions.) Tomorrow we'll discuss the process of estimation as a great math tool. It will make algebra much more fun for you.

When I tried these guessing instructions in homework assignments, I found it very funny how often students cheated by actually doing the work so that their "predictions" would be accurate. What a concept -- learning by cheating!

Wonder and prediction can be used independently, of course. But together they provide a powerful motivation structure that can reach even the most difficult students.

I wonder how many of you have great examples of lessons based on these magical qualities. I predict that I'll soon find out.

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (3)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jared Stein's picture

This reminded me of Derek Muller's work that suggests students tend to ignore new information in favor of their own pre-existing understanding, even if it's wrong. But if you call attention to students misunderstandings -- as predictions, as Muller shows in his Veritasium videos, this can help students adjust faulty mental models by creating cognitive dissonance when they compare their prediction to the correct answer.

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