Monday / April 22

Spark Curiosity by Building the Mystery

History, literature, and science are all full of mysteries. We should teach them. 

The idea of grabbing student interest at the start of a lesson is not a new one. Years ago, Madeline Hunter encouraged teachers to launch lessons with an “anticipatory set” and McREL research (Dean et al., 2012) demonstrates the power of cueing learning with advance organizers. Sparking student curiosity at the beginning of a lesson is perhaps the most powerful way to launch a unit or lesson—both focusing and motivating student learning. Here a few ways to spark student learning, drawn from research (Lowenstein, 1994): 

Frame Learning as a Mystery 

Mysteries are often at the heart of the study of science, history, and literature. People didn’t always know, for example, that atoms were the basic building blocks of matter and still wonder why the Mayans disappeared and how gravity works. Yet we often rob students of the mystery that led to people to explore them in the first place, or we present things that remain uncertain as facts to memorize (e.g., the 10 causes of the fall of the Roman empire). So as you plan lessons and units, look for mysteries (e.g., how did the dinosaurs go extinct?), incongruities (e.g., how could a band of ragtag colonies defeat the most powerful empire in the world?), puzzles (e.g., how can I measure the area of a circle when there are no sides to multiply?), or “head scratchers” that create what’s known as cognitive conflict (e.g., why does metal “feel” colder to the touch than wood?). Then, frame your lesson or units around those questions (of which there can be many). 

Build Suspense in the Classroom 

The reason we read books (or binge-watch television series) is because at each step along the way we want to find out what happens next. You can do the same thing in your classroom—keep students guessing what’s coming next and wanting to come back for more. Here are some examples:  

  • I’ve placed a “mystery rock” in the closed box in front of the classroom. We’re going to use our knowledge of geology to figure out where it belongs on the rock cycle, learn its key properties, including its mass and dimensions, to see if we can guess what it is.” 
  • I’ve just received an important message, written entirely in Spanish, from a long-lost friend in Argentina. She says it’s múy importante. I’m going to need your help reading it, as it contains lots of new vocabulary, irregular preterit tense verbs, and some colloquialisms that we’re going to have to figure out together.” 
  • Oh, no! Someone has gone back in time and altered American history, causing Stephen Douglas to be elected instead of Abraham Lincoln! Can you figure out what things have changed about the nation as result? More importantly, we need to figure out what one critical event got altered, causing Douglas to get elected, so that we can go back and fix it!  
  • One of these rocks is an ordinary earth rock—the other, an extraterrestrial alien that has traveled here from outer space! Let’s use what we’ve learned about meteors and scientific observation to figure out which is which.” 

Engaging students is all about how you frame the mystery of learning. Find these and more tips for building curiosity in my book, Building a Curious School. 


Dean, C., Hubbell, E., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement (2nd ed.). ASCD. 

Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychology Bulletin, 116(1), 75–98. 

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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