My friend George Couros once said, “If students leave school less curious than when they have started, we have failed them.” I tend to agree. I’ve never heard of a cosmologist who says, “I’m done with the universe. No more questions here.” I’ve also never seen an engineer who says, “I’m an expert now. I really don’t need to figure out how stuff works.” Nor have I seen any historians who say, “I don’t really care what happened in the past.” Novelists tend to have stacks of books that they want to read. Even the most seasoned chefs are always out searching for new cuisine (see what I did there). Marathon runners are always trying to figure out ways to improve their approach.
In other words, learning should make you more curious. In fact, there’s often an ongoing cycle of curiosity and creativity, often inspired by play.
I want classrooms to be bastions of creativity and wonder. I want to see students chasing their curiosity and researching answers. I love what happens when students solve problems that don’t have easy answers; when they become builders and engineers and authors and scientists and historians bent on finding out the truth.
Curiosity is especially important in an age of smart machines. AI can do so many things well but it is unable to be curious. True, machine learning can generate a set of questions and answer questions. But a chatbot doesn’t daydream and wonder. AI doesn’t spontaneously chase its own curiosity. Unfortunately, curiosity isn’t always valued in traditional schooling where the system tends to place a high premium on getting the right answer — and getting it quickly. In the process, students internalize the message that uncertainty is a sign of failure and that wonder and amazement are something you can experience in rare bursts. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can find small ways to incorporate curiosity into our daily lessons.
My Epic Fail
I once had a student teacher who had to gather observational data on some aspect of my teaching. After discussing it together, he decided he would track how often I asked questions, how often students asked questions to me, and how often students asked questions to one another. Afterward, he asked me to guess the percentages.
“I think it was about a third, a third, and a third,” I answered.
“Was I off by much?” I asked.
“Over ninety percent of the questions were ones you asked them,” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
“Really,” he answered.
I looked at the tally marks on his paper. “They didn’t ask any questions to one another?” I asked.
“I didn’t count all the times they asked each other to borrow a pencil.”
This was a wake-up call for me. It was a reminder that students will not always ask questions by default. This is something we have to model for students. It’s something we have to plan and design into our lesson plans. It’s something we have to make time for.
7 Ways to Incorporate Curiosity into the Classroom
The following are seven different ways we can get students asking and answering questions.
1. Incorporate inquiry into direct instruction
Often when a student says, “I don’t know what to ask,” what they’re really saying is, “I’m afraid of sounding stupid.” If students have had to spend most of their time getting the questions right, it can feel unnerving to be told that they can now ask their own questions.
Instead of doing a think-pair-share during direct instruction, do an ask-pair-answer. Each student jots down as many questions as they can during direct instruction and then asks a neighbor. Next, they do a stand-up, hand-up, pair-up where they walk around the class answering one another’s questions. But sometimes they struggle with what to ask, so we might need to . . .
2. Provide scaffolds and supports
Explain and model the different types of questions (an idea we’ll explore in point #4). The idea here to teach students about clarifying, critical thinking and inferencing questioning. Often the process is messy and there are moments of overlap, but it helps students to have a general framework of the types of questions that exist. Eventually, it becomes second nature as they ask, “What needs to be clarified?” or “How does this idea relate to that concept?” or “Why is it that _______?” or “What am I not seeing here that I should be seeing?” From there, they can develop better questions.
Here’s where sentence stems become so helpful. Sometimes students struggle to ask questions because they aren’t sure what kinds of questions they should ask. They might be English Learners (ELs) or they might be experiencing cognitive overload. Sentence stems and example sentences provide a fast scaffold for students. Here is a sample of the kinds of sentence stems you might provide:
General Question Frames:
Why is _______?
What if ______?
How is _________ related to __________?
What would happen if __________?
What is the most/least _________?
How does _________ compare to ________?
What is the cause of ______?
What are the reasons for _________?
What if we knew ___________?
What is the purpose of __________?
How does _________ work?
What would change if you ___________?
Who is _________?
Where has __________?
When was ____________?
What is the most ____________?
What was the cause of _______?
Why would __________?
How is _______ different from __________?
What is the relationship between _________?
What evidence can you find to _________?
How does _______ compare to _________?
Can you think of an example of __________?
Is there a different way to solve?
How do you see _____ play out in your world?
What would result if _________?
What approach would you use to _______?
How would the meaning change if you __________?
What have you done to __________?
How would you approach _________?
Is there a better way to solve ______?
What would have happened if ________?
What is the most significant?
Why would _______ be necessary?
How do you improve ________?
What are the pros and cons of ________?
What is an alternative perspective to __________?
What could be changed to improve _______?
What criteria would you use to ________?
Question Frames: Design Thinking
What does ________ mean?
What is the process for _________?
How is ___________?
How does ___________effect people?
How do ________________ feel about _________?
Why does ___________?
What is the difference between ____________ and _________?
How is ______________ made?
What are the main causes of _____________?
What would happen if ______________?
Is there a scenario when ________________?
What other types of products already exist compared to _________?
Who is most likely to use _____________?
When was _____________ invented?
What is the best way to ____________?
What are the biggest effects of ___________?
What do people believe about ______________?
Which type of _________ are most popular?
How would you create a __________?
How does ____________work?
The goal here is to reduce fear and help students access the language. I was initially reluctant to use sentence stems and sample questions as a teacher. I was afraid it would “do too much of the thinking” for students. I worried that they would be less creative in asking their questions. But I actually found that it was the perfect scaffold that they built upon. Their questions actually became more creative.
To take this as a deeper level, you might spend a whole class period letting students chase their curiosity.
3. Focus on peer-to-peer questions
We can incorporate peer-to-peer questions in our daily practice. Students can do mock interviews, fake press conferences, and rotating discussion zones. In these moments, they get the opportunity to practice the process of asking and answering questions. This is a chance to make questions a part of the daily culture of the classroom. In math, students can ask questions about processes and problem-solving. They can ask diagnostic questions in order to figure out where they went wrong. In a social studies class, they might ask conceptual questions, theoretical questions, and questions that bring about multiple viewpoints and theories.
Again, we can provide students with sentence stems, such as these clarifying question sentence stems.
Why did you _______________?
What made you think of writing _____________________?
Have you considered ______________________?
Is it possible that ________________?
Have you considered the possibility that ____________?
I was wondering why _________________?
Another example might be a peer feedback process.
Or it might be a full Socratic Seminar, where students ask and answer questions. Socratic seminars are a democratic, student-centered, approach to class discussions. They can be used at any grade level with any subject area. In a Socratic Seminar, members meet in a circle (or more likely an oval, because, let’s be real, circles are really hard to create) and share their insights. Participants do not raise their hands or call on names. Because there’s no discussion leader, each member can comment or ask follow-up questions to one another. This approach can be empowering for participants because they own the conversation. Unlike a typical class discussion, the conversation moves fluidly back and forth rather than having to go through the teacher.
4. Teach students to evaluate questions.
There are many ways that students can evaluate questions. One of my favorites is the QFT (Question Formulation Technique) process developed by the Right Question Institute (RQI). The QFT process consists of the following steps:
- Introduce a Question Focus: The facilitator presents a topic, concept, or problem to the participants as the “Question Focus.” It serves as the basis for generating questions.
- Generate Questions: Participants are encouraged to brainstorm as many questions as possible related to the Question Focus. During this step, the facilitator emphasizes the rule of quantity over quality, encouraging participants to generate as many questions as they can without evaluating or discussing them.
- Categorize Questions: Participants review the list of questions generated and categorize them as “open-ended” or “closed-ended” questions. Open-ended questions typically encourage deeper thinking and exploration, while closed-ended questions usually have a single correct answer.
- Prioritize Questions: Participants select or prioritize the questions they find most interesting, relevant, or important. This step helps focus the discussion or inquiry that follows.
- Discuss and Reflect: The group engages in a discussion, reflecting on the questions generated, the categorization process, and the reasons behind their prioritization. This step encourages critical thinking, collaboration, and deeper exploration of the topic.
The QFT process is designed to encourage divergent thinking, curiosity, and active engagement in the learning process. Another option is to have students meet in small groups to analyze the questions they create. In the first phase, they ask questions. The goal here is to reduce judgment. I’ve found that it helps to focus on quantity and not quality. Just get out all the questions you can generate. You want students to avoid self-censoring. Next, students share their questions anonymously. Maybe it’s a set of interview questions. Or it might be a set of research questions.
Once the questions exist in an anonymous format (a Google Form or a Google Document), students judge the questions. Each member has a separate job:
Member 1: Is it specific?
Member 2: Is it fact-based?
Member 3: Is it on-topic?
Member 4: quality control (the person checking in on the other three)
From here, students can rewrite the questions that have a lower combined score.
5. Treat curiosity as a habit.
There’s a famous scene in the first season of Ted Lasso where he engages in a high-stakes game of darts against the villainous Rupert Mannion. Right at the moment when the scene hits a crescendo, Ted says, “Guys have underestimated me my entire life and for years I never understood why – it used to really bother me. Then one day I was driving my little boy to school, and I saw a quote by Walt Whitman, it was painted on the wall there and it said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’ I like that.”
It’s one of the show’s most memorable scenes.
And yet . . .
There’s a small detail in that show that piqued my curiosity.
Did Walt Whitman really say that? I wondered.
Something about the syntax and the use of the word “curious” seemed a little too contemporary. A quick little round of lateral reading revealed that the original quote was from a 1986 article in a syndicated advice column to a parent worried when she found contraceptives in her teenager’s bedroom. It doesn’t make the scene any less remarkable. If anything, the true origins of the quote adds a deeper layer that I can appreciate even more.
I do this often. I find myself asking, “Is that really how it works?” or “I wonder why . . .” when watching a show. Another Ted Lasso example was the “be a goldfish” quote. It’s the notion that goldfish forget things in a matter of seconds.
When I asked the question, “How long is goldfish memory?” I was surprised to learn that they can remember certain facts for up to five months. From there, I learned about goldfish training. It’s easy to look at this and say, “It’s just a goldfish. Why does that matter?” But the goal isn’t practicality. The goal is curiosity as an end in itself.
When I was a pre-service teacher, my mentor Brad said something so often it became a mantra for me. “We must seize the moment of excited curiosity for the acquisition of wisdom.” Brad would say this all the time and slowly I memorized it and internalized it. He wasn’t sure where the saying originally came from, but the idea was that in that single moment when your curiosity is sparked, you should chase it. If you put it off until later, you miss something in the process. Those questions evaporate. But when you chase the curiosity in the moment, you end up asking better questions and learning more in the process. Yes, there’s a time for deadlines and it’s true that we sometimes need to get back on task. But there’s a place for going off-road and wandering in wonder.
As a teacher, you can model this process for your students every time you pause and search for an answer to a fresh question. A teacher’s naturally curiosity infects the entire classroom in a really positive way. As a student, I loved to hear my teachers say, “Yeah, I’m trying to figure out __________” or “I’ve been exploring ___________.” Their curiosity meant that it was okay for me to be curious; that being geeky was positive thinking. You can give your students that same gift: the permission to wonder. When you talk about your own curiosity and you share the questions you have, you create a class culture that values inquiry.
We often hear about curiosity as a 21st century skill. But it’s more than that. It’s a mindset and a habit. It’s something we develop and retain as much as it is something we learn how to do. If we want to see students chase their curiosity, we need to find small moments to model this process in class. Sometimes you might want to take it a step further with a single class period inquiry sprint.
6. Do a single-day inquiry lesson.
In a math course, you might do Dan Meyer’s “what can you do with it?” activity, where students form their own math problems based on a visual or video. In a science class, students might observe a phenomenon and set up a list of questions they want to pursue.
Or you could do a full Wonder Day lesson, where students in any subject ask a question, engage in research, and share their findings with others. This project begins with open-ended student inquiry, where they get to choose the topic and the questions. However, it aligns to content-neutral skill standards that cover many of the informational reading, research, and digital content creation standards found within the Common Core ELA standards.
7. Launch a full inquiry-based project.
In The Order of Phoenix, the fifth of the Harry Potter series, Dolorus Umbridge takes over as the Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher and instantly transforms the class into a textbook-based class focused on passing the standardized tests. When Harry questions whether this will prepare them for the chaos of fighting against Vold . . . err . . . um . . . he who must not be named . . . Umbridge punishes him and he ends up forming his own school within a school called Dumbledore’s Army.
Dumbledore’s Army is purely inquiry-based. While Harry is the teacher, he is mostly a guide on the side, empowering the students to ask questions and find the answers themselves. They rely on each other and on various spell books to solve problems and answer their questions. While the process might seem messy compared to Umbridge’s approach, the students learn at a rapid pace because they aren’t wasting time repeating what they already know.
This is an example of inquiry-based learning.