Brain-Based Learning

Four Strategies to Spark Curiosity via Student Questioning

March 22, 2012

British archaeologist Mary Leakey described her own learning as being "compelled by curiosity." Curiosity is the name we give to the state of having unanswered questions. And unanswered questions, by their nature, help us maintain a learning mindset. When we realize that we do not know all there is to know about something in which we are interested, we thirst. We pursue. We act as though what we do not know is more important than what we do, as though what we do not possess is worth the chase to own it. How do we help students discover this drive?

Strategy One: Equip Students to Ask Questions

At its essence, curiosity is asking questions and pursuing answers. The brain does not like unanswered questions and will shift into seek-and-find mode to uncover and understand the unknown. Questions ignite curiosity.

We often ask students if they have any questions, but we rarely teach them how to ask advantageous questions. Like any skill, asking questions can be taught and practiced, and with technology enabling an increasing emphasis on self-directed learning, this skill is more important than ever. As Wendy Puriefoy explains, "The skill of question formulation -- a thinking ability with universal relevance -- can make all learning possible."1 Students should be equipped to be inquisitive explorers, to pursue learning anytime, anywhere.

Strategy Two: Provide a Launch Pad

Even if students have mastered the full range of question forming, it is difficult to inquire about topics with which they have no familiarity. When this is the case, giving just enough information to launch inquiry can help. Limit the information to true basics, such as a general context and term definitions. Then challenge students to generate questions that, when answered, uncover additional information. (For a more creative approach to launching questions, try something similar to Dr. Judy Willis' inventive use of radishes!2) Guide and prompt as needed to encourage questions that address deeper concepts, and connections that will help students construct understanding. If needed, eliminate duplicity by combining questions. Once the questions are articulated, let the search begin!

Strategy Three: Cast a Wide Net

During the information gathering phase of learning, the brain does its best work in an active and receptive state. (Neurologically, this is characterized by decreased frontal lobe activity but increased activity in the temporal, occipital and parietal lobes, and by increased alpha and theta wave activity, suggesting a relaxed and receptive mental state.3) Action associated with this neurological state includes searching and collecting that is both focused ("I know the topic I am pursuing") and open to discovery ("I do not know where I will find it or what else I may find in the process"). We can foster this by challenging students to "cast a wide net" as they gather information, striving for diversity in sources and source types. Not just a summary from Wikipedia, but also a poem that addresses some aspect of the topic; not just the labeled diagram, but also an artist's portrayal of the idea.

Keep the search active by praising student efforts to discover novelty. A new idea or perspective raises new questions, and since the brain does not like unanswered questions, curiosity continues to motivate the search.

Strategy Four: Avoid Cutting the Search Short

Curiosity cut off at its peak rarely regains its fervor, so allow ample time for students to thoroughly pursue answers and novel discoveries related to the topic or idea.

What is found -- the answers to the questions -- must eventually be sorted and related to known ideas or experiences for new knowledge and understanding to emerge. However, we can spark curiosity by engaging students in questioning and in pursuing answers. Learning "compelled" by questions is learning driven by curiosity.


1Puriefoy, W.D. (2011). Foreword in Rothstein, D. & Santana, L. Make Just One Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
2Washburn, K.D. (2010).
The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain. Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press.
3Carson, S. (2010).
Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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