Inquiry-Based Learning

Cultivating Curiosity Among Older Students

Small, daily shifts in the way middle and high school teachers ask questions can boost student engagement.

September 21, 2022
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

I’m not naturally inclined to visit art galleries. Yet, when I visit an art gallery, I get curious. I ask questions such as, what will be the overarching theme, and what will surprise me? After I view a piece of art, I try to determine how close my predictions of the purpose of the piece align with the artist’s statement. I use inquiry to activate my curiosity even when the experience is not my initial preference.

In a seven-period day, kids are likely not going to be stoked for every single period. They are likely visiting a few of their own “art galleries” per day. So, how do we cultivate curiosity when students are not necessarily intrinsically motivated about the context or content we find ourselves engaged in?

While I think we are all naturally curious, our curiosity is usually tapered by our intrinsic interest in something. Moreover, our curiosity only goes so far. The brain naturally centers on memory rather than critical thinking. As such, we fall to our memory rather than rise to new or deeper thinking. How then can we create meaningful curiosity around challenging content? I think it’s all about daily habits.

Macro- and Micro-inquiry

To cultivate curiosity with learners, we often center our efforts on “macro-inquiry” approaches such as running complex problems or projects, giving students a driving or essential question, using protocols (e.g., jigsaw), or giving students tasks in which they work in groups. Macro-inquiry sets the stage for curiosity but doesn’t sustain curiosity over time.

Micro-inquiry is all about small, doable practices that students engage in several times a day to cultivate curiosity. When we ask a question and give students time to process it, prompt them to dig deeper with their initial responses, prime them to evaluate the ideas of others, or push them to evaluate the differences from their initial thinking and the ideas conveyed by the teacher and their peers, we are engaging in micro-inquiry.

Macro-inquiry is starting a fire; micro-inquiry is keeping the fire going.

This changing of focus from macro- to micro-inquiry makes quite a difference in student learning. Research over the past 15 years has shown that “active” rather than “facilitative” teaching strategies make a big difference. This is why project-based learning (PBL) is less impactful than rigorous PBL, which requires more specific, daily instructional and feedback strategies at all levels of learning. It’s the daily actions that matter most in the classroom.

So, what can we do to embed micro-inquiry into our classrooms? Let’s take a look at a few approaches.

Strategies to Initiate Curiosity

Think again: Ask students to form one or more guesses to a prompt (e.g., What do you think is the answer to this problem? What is your hunch on a potential solution to this problem?) before they start an activity, rank those guesses, and prepare to check their guesses in the middle and end of the activity. Then, they should compare their initial thinking with their current understanding.

Scaffold the start: Start with guided inquiry before open-ended questions. Lay out a number of questions up front, and ask students which one they want to ask or how they would change the question to be more interesting.

Praise the pause: State the following before you expect students to respond to a question: “I’m about to ask you about X—prepare to respond to the question with an answer, an answer and an example to support your idea, or a different question.” Giving students an opportunity to process their thinking with you and their peers is helpful.

Strategies to Keep Curiosity Going

In2out: Structure inquiry by following these steps:

  • Students reflect on the question in writing (“in”- inward focus),
  • turn and talk with a partner (“2”-pair share), and
  • then hold a discussion with the class (out).

Pass the questions around: When you ask your class a question, make sure at least five students answer before you respond.

Four corners: When there is more than one answer that emerges from students, ask them to move to different parts of the room to identify their preference. They should discuss why they chose their selection and move around the room if they change their mind.

Strategies to Deepen Curiosity

Present deepening prompts: Move questions outside the default “what” and “how” to “should,” “to what extent,” “where,” and “when.” For example, rather than just asking “What is environmental racism?” you can ask where we see it occurring in our communities. In lieu of asking, “How do we address environmental racism?” you can ask, “When do solutions that mitigate environmental racism work effectively, and when do they fail?”

Keep inquiry going: Prompting all responses from students with “What makes you say that?” or “Where would I find out if you are correct?” pushes them to seek out their own rationale and precision in thinking.

Cue transfer: Ask students to think about their thinking. Questions may include: How does the process of questioning in this classroom extend to other environments, and how do you stay curious when things are hard and/or boring?

While none of these strategies are likely earth-shattering, the novelty lies in the sustained use of these practices over time. How do we sustain these practices in three months’ time, at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, and Monday morning after a holiday break?

As writer James Clear states, “We never rise to our goals, we fall to our systems.” When we set up “macro-inquiry” with the goals of curiosity, we often fall short. We desire curiosity to be ignited through an emotional cue, when small habits will enable students to behave their way into curiosity over time. Start with and stick with micro-inquiry habits each day, and see if curiosity becomes a habit for your students.

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  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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