Critical Thinking

Sparking Students’ Curiosity to Enhance Their Problem-Solving Skills

Curiosity about small questions, or micowonderings, can help students solve problems in any discipline.

May 11, 2023
Gary Waters / Ikon Images

When you hear the word wonder, what images come to mind? Perhaps you’re imagining a person with their hand on their chin and a thought bubble above their head filled with images of the universe.

Yes, this is one important version of wonder. Some of the most important innovations of humankind came from the sort of curiosity that breeds wild ideas on the cosmic level. However, wonder is not always as big as looking up into the sky and questioning our cosmos. Just as many of humankind’s brightest solutions came from microwonderings, the kinds of questions that all good problem solvers ask.

The Importance of Staying Curious

Imagine a mechanical engineer tasked with designing a particular gear to be used in an airplane. She might spend years using computer-aided design software in the process of perfecting the cog. How does she stay motivated for such work day after day? Enter microwonderings. Each day, she must ask herself small questions like “What if I slightly elongate this element and shorten this one?” or “What would the addition of ridges do?” She has to stay curious all the time.

Regardless of the discipline you operate in, solving problems and pushing for a solution requires constant micromusing.

Mathematicians ask, “Where have I seen a problem like this before? How can I adjust that procedure for this new context?” Historians ask, “Who’s telling this story, and where can I find another perspective?” Writers ask, “How does this particular word choice affect my meaning, and what changes if I swap the word for another?” While these may seem like small questions, the iterative process of improvement that they catalyze is the key to progress.

So how do we teach students to become curious on a small scale like this?

Encouraging Small-Scale Curiosity

One of the most important things teachers can do is model this line of questioning. Regularly demonstrate the problem-solving process, and vocalize your thoughts as you do so. For example, in an English class during a writing conference, make sure to voice aloud the microwonderings you have while editing the students’ work. Demonstrate the iterations that a sentence might go through in the editing process by changing it, asking what the effect is, changing again, and so on.

Another way that teachers can encourage microwondering is to provide question stems associated with the problem-solving process in their discipline. You might even have a poster on the wall that reminds students of the sorts of questions they should be asking.

For example, a math class might have question stems like “How is this similar to a problem I have seen before? How is it different? How can I turn the problem into a simpler one that I know how to solve?” Frequently refer to the list, and continuously add to it as you and your students discover additional fruitful questions.

Finding the Right Problems

An important aspect in guiding students to apply their curiosity to problem-solving is presenting them with problems that are interesting enough to warrant the effort of arriving at a solution.

The process of choosing such problems is twofold. First, the problems must be in the students’ zone of proximal development (ZPD). In other words, they can’t be so easy that the students automatically know what to do, and they can’t be so difficult that the students have no hope of solving them. Using frequent formative assessment to determine each student’s unique ability level and then choosing problems to match that is crucial. This means that students may not all be working on the same problem, and that’s OK!

One way to ensure that all students operate in their ZPD is by carefully designing a sequence of problems. Start with problems that the students can definitely solve, and progressively build in complexity. The added complexity requires students to build off of strategies they know work but then ask themselves about what adjustments need to be made in order to solve a novel problem.

Finally, the problems should be meaningful. The engineer that we talked about earlier must believe that her work is important and that discovering an optimal solution is worth all of the experimenting that she does daily.

For students, this might mean choosing problems or tasks that are relevant to their lives, ensuring that they find value in seeing the task through to the end. It could also mean creating a culture of high craftsmanship where students are motivated not only to see a task through to the finish, but also to create the best final product possible.

Curiosity is the urge to understand something that you don’t already understand. It could mean having a big, seemingly crazy, novel idea that changes the way we think and operate. It could also mean asking question after question, resulting in little experiments and incremental progress. Both paths are crucial to innovation, and teachers have the responsibility (and opportunity) to help students build these skills.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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