Tuesday / March 5

3 Principles of Curious Classrooms 

What single factor drives the following positive outcomes? 

  • It’s as important as intelligence in student achievement. 
  • It’s as important as persistence in student achievement. 
  • It supports better job performance. 
  • It leads to better relationships. 
  • People with more of it have greater life satisfaction. 
  • It helps us live longer. 
  • It predicts leadership ability. 

Rarely, if ever, do audiences arrive at the correct answer immediately. Usually, they cast about for a minute or two, offering responses like, Persistence? Grit? Motivation? Gratitude? When someone finally offers the right answer—curiosity—the crowd emits a drawn out ahhh of recognition. Why, yes, of course. Curiosity. 

The farthest thing from our minds 

These interactions are not so different from what researchers find when they survey teachers. When asked to list important outcomes of learning off the tops of their heads, rarely, if ever, do teachers volunteer the concept of curiosity. Yet when they see it on a list, they give it high marks for something they hope to cultivate in students (Engel, 2015a). In short, teachers aren’t opposed to curiosity; it’s just been the farthest thing from their minds. 

And who can blame them? As the previous chapter noted, public school teachers’ performance assessments (and even pay) have increasingly been based on how well their students perform on high-stakes tests. In this pressure-cooker environment, who has the time to think about curiosity, let alone cultivate it? Thus, we appear to have perfectly engineered our education system to produce the results we’re getting: Student disengagement and waning curiosity the longer students stay in school. 

Schooling with curiosity in mind 

So, what would it look like if we were to reengineer our schools and classrooms to produce different outcomes—namely, increased motivation and curiosity? What if instead of applying the dismal science of economics to schools to pressure them to improve, we applied positive psychology to create a system of schools and classrooms that tap the innate power of student curiosity? 

If that sounds like a bridge too far, it’s really not. Already, a great many teachers do unleash student curiosity in their classrooms. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues (1993), in fact, found this in their study of teenagers; while most classrooms were tedious environments, a few stood out as vibrant examples of engagement. In these classrooms, teachers sparked and maintained students’ interest by modeling passion and enthusiasm for their subject areas, which sent a message to students that mathematics, art, or literature were full of fascinating and useful ideas worthy of pursuit. They also helped their students connect what they were learning to their own interests, lives, and long-term goals. One such insightful teacher, for example, launched a student’s interest in a fashion design career when she told her student that, as a nonconformist, she might enjoy reading about another iconoclast: Coco Chanel. 

Good teachers have always done this—taken the time to cultivate student curiosity and interest in what they’re learning. When it comes to unleashing kids’ curiosity, there’s no specific formula, checklist or program (e.g., 30 Days to More Curious Kids!) to follow. Rather, we must focus on creating the right conditions for curiosity to flourish by keeping in mind a few important principles that emerge from research on student motivation and curiosity. 

Curiosity Principle #1: Embrace not knowing. 

Kids are more curious when they know that it’s OK to not know something—that is, to have a gap in their knowledge. We need to help our kids see that it’s OK to profess ignorance, yet a shame to profess indifference. We can do that by saying things like, “I LOVE that question because it shows you’re thinking deeply about this. How would you find an answer to it? When you do, let me know what you learn because I’m curious about it, too.” 

Curiosity Principle #2: Ask fewer, but deeper questions. 

A thoughtful question or two can pique curiosity, but a bunch of them does not. A study of 18 college classes, for example, found that nearly 80 percent of the questions that professors asked during a lecture were low-level recall questions; 23 percent of them, in fact, required a simple yes or no answer. Moreover, the more questions the professors asked, the less complex their questions were (Larson & Lovelace, 2013). In contrast, the professors who asked a few thoughtful questions at critical junctures engaged students in much deeper levels of thinking, which suggests that asking kids to recall what they already know will do little to spark their curiosity, whereas encouraging them to build on what they know by surfacing new questions or gaps in their knowledge sustains their curiosity. 

Curiosity Principle #3: Replace undirected questions with directed ones. 

To engage students, replace undirected questions (posing a question to the entire class and waiting for voluntary answers) with directed questions (calling on individual students to answer questions)(Walsh & Sattes, 2016). One such approach, called numbered heads together, groups students in teams of four to consider a response to a teacher question before calling on individuals (by number) to respond. It has been found to virtually eliminate student failure on subsequent content tests (Maheady, Mallette, Harper, & Sacca, 1991). 

There are four more curiosity principles, which you can find in my forthcoming book, Building a Curious School. 

Written by

Bryan Goodwin thrives on translating research into practice, scanning the world for new insights and best practices on teaching and leading, and helping educators everywhere adapt them to address their own challenges. A frequent conference presenter, he is the author of Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives and Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success, and is co-author of Curiosity Works: A Guidebook for Moving Your School from Improvement to Innovation; The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching; and Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School. Before joining McREL in 1998, Bryan was a college instructor, a high school teacher, and an award-winning business journalist.

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