Inquiring Minds Want to Know…

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Teachers have one of the most challenging jobs: to educate their students and inspire those students to develop an inquiring mind. Yes, of course, there are so many other layers to teaching; but there is a major difference between memorizing a fact and inspiring interest in learning.

I can look back more than two decades to the moment a teacher got through to me how important curiosity is: it was freshmen high school English and my teacher wrote on the board “Journey over Destination.” Not a unique concept in literature, I know. But new to me. And it helped me understand that more attention belongs on the how than the results. I became, truly, curious.

I imagine this is the kind of experience teachers all over the world hope to achieve. To produce a reaction in their students that resonates for years later and continues to drive those students to continue learning.

How do we inspire curiosity?

There can’t be a single formula for driving home how important curiosity is for young learners. But there are a number of broad guidelines that can be employed. Teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron said “[t]he key is to build in spontaneous, in-the-moment instruction that encourages students to ask questions and fumble toward the answers,” in her article Sparking Student Inquiry Key to Classroom Engagement for NEA.

This idea is simple enough: educators need to spot and encourage curiosity in the moment. But in practice, that’s no easy thing to achieve. Educators today have a wildly difficult job.

So then, how do we (not just educators, but everyone) inspire curiosity?

The question needs to be untethered from the classroom. We all can help by prompting curiosity whenever we see it. Often times, it can be as simple as a follow-up question like “why do you think that is?”

Four Ideas to Spark Curiosity

Thinking about how we frame ideas provides a lot of opportunity to open up young minds. Consider these few ways inquiry can be inspired:

  1. Give incomplete information – for educators, ideas can be introduced from a single perspective or even a flawed perspective. This can provoke natural curiosity in the students who might not understand why something is one-sided.
  2. Start from a question – rather than lecturing or pontificating, offer a question on a subject. Questions prompt a response, which ideally will build engagement with the subject and lead to curiosity.
  3. Work from their interests – don’t force a subject on the students. Instead, look for ideas that dovetail with their interests and find ways to bring these ideas together. For example, studying world history might be boring. But what if the student you’re speaking to loves boats? Frame history around the nautical aspects first to draw them in.
  4. Challenge responses – The hardest to do and most delicate. But a well-timed response that challenges a students assertion can trigger a reevaluation of what they thought they knew. By far the most difficult, but challenging one’s responses can be a powerful motivator for curiosity.

Broad Applications

At higher levels of learning (Undergrad and Postgrad notably) a certain amount of curiosity is required. As students endeavor to craft long-form essays and projects, they naturally need to employ research skills. But there is a difference between being capable of digging up facts about something and being genuinely curious about that same thing.

Successful students, those who achieve the level of educational success they strive for and who continue learning for the rest of their lives, will invariably be described as curious. Many other characteristics factor into making a student into a true learner. But a curious nature—and the ability to pursue that curiosity—is a hallmark of a lifelong learner.

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