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5 Ways to Activate Curiosity in the Classroom

5 Ways to Activate Curiosity in the Classroom

“The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.” (John Dewey, How We Think)

During the summer of 1976, my family took a trip to Maine. We drove from Philadelphia, and my job was navigator. (This was at a time when maps were still printed on paper and no one had ever heard of GPS.) Interestingly, the parts of the trip I remember most are following the map as we drove, visiting my mother’s hometown of Boston along the way, and meeting another boy in the neighboring cabin who was also named Gerald.

Why did those three particular items stick with me? I suspect it’s because each one of them piqued my curiosity more than other events on the trip. I remember the map because it was the first time I can recall being “in charge” of navigating on a longer drive. Each new place I saw coming up on the map made me wonder what it looked like in person. I would try to imagine it, but the reality inevitably was different, and I was constantly processing the new information and connecting it to what I saw on the map.

As for the trip to Boston, I knew a little something about it from fourth grade social studies and from things my mom had told me, but I’d never been there myself. Dad’s hometown of Harrisburg was closer to home and we’d been there a number of times, but Boston was a brand new experience, and I was fascinated to see some of the places that were part of my mother’s childhood.

When we got settled in our cabin at our destination, I went outside to play and met another boy. When I found out his name was the same as mine, I was amazed, since the only other Gerald I knew at the time was the President of the United States. I wondered if the name might be more common than I thought.

Researchers have confirmed my anecdotal experiences, showing that curiosity is a critical component of effective learning. I believe it is an essential part of a 21st century classroom, and teachers should equip themselves with the tools to make it a regular part of their instruction.

Your Brain on Curiosity

Curiosity is about the brain wanting to make order out of something that doesn’t currently make sense. Some theories even categorize curiosity as a drive, like hunger and thirst.

Curiosity is associated with the release and flow of dopamine, serotonin, and opioids in the brain. These chemicals are part of the reward pathway, generating the sense of pleasure and satisfaction we feel when our curiosity is satisfied. To put it another way, we are addicted to wonder.

Curious brains are better at learning. Curiosity can even leak over and help brains learn incidental and boring things that are encountered around the same time as the stuff they are actually curious about.

In a way, curiosity is the brain’s way of creating novelty where it doesn’t exist in the world around us. Novelty promotes and sustains attention. When our experiences are mundane and routine, we can create mental possibilities that are different and explore them. Daydreaming and doodling could even be mechanisms to amplify our internal motivation to learn and to enhance learning.

Key Components of Curiosity in the Classroom

Let’s consider two components underlying the strategies we’ll be using to promote curiosity.

Mystery/Surprise/Ambiguity

When the principal walked into the classroom, my third grade enrichment group was immediately alert. When I told them Mr. Perez had a special announcement for us, they were intrigued.

“Our school has a unique opportunity,” he began, “and you get to hear about it first.” Now the students were laser-focused on our visitor. “A community member is letting us borrow a time machine, and we’re going to take a field trip to ancient Egypt. I want your class to put together a guide for teachers to help them plan their trip.”

I could have started this unit by telling students we would be researching ancient Egypt and writing reports about it. But by giving them a surprise and a bit of a mystery, my students eagerly dug into the work and quickly generated a long list of things they wanted to know about so they could plan an exciting trip.

One key component of curiosity in the classroom, then, is incorporating some element of mystery, surprise, or ambiguity. When a demonstration doesn’t align with prior experiences, or when there are missing pieces to a puzzle, students naturally want to figure out what is going on.

Exploration/Play

Another element of curiosity is open exploration. Sometimes, the most interesting connections and sparks of wonder come when we are playing around without a specific goal in mind. By giving the freedom to make a mess and just try things, students will stumble upon interesting patterns or intriguing possibilities. As soon as someone says, “That’s weird,” or “I wonder if…” then you know they are ready to dig in and work at learning.

5 Classroom Strategies to Activate Curiosity

1.   Find or create the “hook” in every topic

What is it about what you’re teaching that can make it compelling? If you can find the intrigue or challenge, even if it’s through fantasy like my “time machine” scenario, students will be more inclined to engage from the start and persevere through a challenging task.

But be careful of hollow promises in your hook. There’s a reason that BuzzFeed and Upworthy are so successful: they have mastered the art of generating interest by creating headlines that demand you click them. I could have titled this article, “This Teacher Drove His Students Insane: What Happened Next Will Change How You Think About Learning FOREVER”. But when you got here, the reality of the article likely would not have blown you away. Find an honest but engaging way to create interest without hyperbole.

2.   Give students choice and voice

While you might sometimes be able to persuade students to become curious about things you want them to learn, they will pursue their own passions more deeply. Provide options that allow them to make their own connections between the material and things they are already curious about. If you structure your projects and lessons thoughtfully, incorporating student voice and choice at strategic points, you can still accomplish your learning objectives and state standards while giving students freedom.

3.   Provide time for unstructured exploration

It takes discipline for a teacher to allot unstructured exploration time in class. The relentless drive to get stuff done and cover all the required content makes us feel like we cannot relinquish even five minutes for what might be perceived as fluff.

But exploration is as integral to learning as memory. “Discovery brings joy,” says neurologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules. “Exploration creates the need for more discovery so that more joy can be experienced.” School is not typically built to sustain that, but if you intentionally invest more instruction time into exploration, you can relight the fire in your students. Having highly motivated learners will reap benefits on the back end.

4.   Create a “Parking Lot”

Unstructured exploration is sure to prompt a lot of random wonderings, ideas, and hunches. But they are likely to crop up at other times as well—often during the most inconvenient times for the teacher to deal with them. So instead of dismissing them as off-task or inappropriate, create a process for capturing them.

Have a wall, bulletin board, or notebook somewhere in your room where students who have those ideas can “park” them for later consideration. Don’t let them languish, though. Be sure to visit the parking lot regularly by sharing the most interesting questions out loud, or letting students browse it at the start of a research project.

5.   Teach students to ask questions

Ramsey Musallam, a high school chemistry teacher, says, “Questions can be windows to great instruction, but not the other way around.” Good questions form the basis and context for learning, and although we can create some curiosity by asking thought-provoking questions, the most powerful questions are those students generate themselves.

Asking questions is, however, a complicated skill. Many students don’t know how to do it well since they rarely have the opportunity in school.

One excellent framework to teach this to students is the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from the Right Question Institute. This is a structured process for teaching students how to generate, evaluate, and select great questions useful in any number of different learning situations.

Learning as a Journey

These five strategies should serve as just the first leg of a journey towards making curiosity a cornerstone of your teaching. It’s likely that you already have other ideas that also promote wonder in your students. Share what you know in the comments.

That family vacation we took forty years ago was not just about getting to the destination. The entire journey was a learning process and an experience that stays with me to this day. Likewise, the time our students spend in the classroom is not merely a vehicle to get them to mastery of a skill or concept. Instead, think of every day as a valuable part of a lifelong journey, fueled by curiosity. What will you do to keep your students’ tanks full?

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Written by

Gerald Aungst has more than 50 years of personal and professional experience fostering curiosity in learning through play and making stuff. During the last 25 of those years, in his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, Gerald has worked to create a rich, vibrant, and equitable learning culture in schools. Gerald is currently a gifted support teacher in the Cheltenham School District in suburban Philadelphia. Gerald is also one of the organizers of Edcamp Philly and a founder of AllAboutExplorers.com. His book, 5 Principles of the Modern Mathematics Classroom, is available from Corwin. You can also connect with Gerald on Twitter at @geraldaungst.

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