Where did all the questions go? A case for curiosity in the classroom
Do you want your students to be inquisitive? Do you want them to satisfy their urge to know “stuff?” Of course you do and if you posed these two questions to any educator in America, you’d be hard-pressed to find an employed educator who’d say no.
Intuitively, we know that curiosity and education pair nicely—and research suggests something similar. As Susan Engel points out in her recent essay “The Case for Curiosity,” “research shows unequivocally that when people are curious about something, they learn more, and better.”
This isn’t surprising, nor is it surprising that children are more likely to remember something when their interest is piqued; or that “when older students are intrigued by unexpected or mysterious descriptions” in texts that they will not only remember, but “more deeply understand what they read.” What may be surprising is what Engel and her research assistant found out in a 2006 study of elementary classrooms:
- Kindergartners did engage in “educationally productive,” hands-on activities that piqued their interest. But in nearly every case, students were not responsible for generating or learning how to answer their own questions. Instead, students followed clearly-outlined instructions; most experiential activities, too, were guided by a clearly-defined outcome set by the teacher.
- When Engel reviewed transcripts of her observations, she also found that when teachers posed questions, they tended to be closed-ended—and when students asked questions that led the discussion in another direction, they were “kindly, but firmly” redirected back to the lesson’s focus. In any given two-hour stretch, Engel and her research assistant generally saw only two to five questions or explorations.
In 5th grade classrooms, Engel’s findings are even more troubling:
- It was typical for a two-hour stretch of time to pass without hearing a single, student-generated question. This means that 11 year olds are going for hours at a time without inquiring or articulating a need to know.
This is rather unsettling, especially when you consider that we are born with an insatiable appetite for knowledge: We want to know what objects feel like, how they taste, what happens when we do X with Y –and why it happened. So what’s happening in these classrooms?
Perhaps we become less curious over time. Engel references a study published in the Journal of Personality that suggests our need to know does become “less robust over time.” But could a waning curiosity have something to do with our environment, too? Engel doesn’t provide us with a direct conclusion, but she does tell us that studies have found that:
- When researchers invite children into a room containing a novel object, they find that children are very attuned to the feedback of adults
- When the experimenter makes encouraging faces or comments, children are more likely to explore the object
- Children show much more interest in materials when an adult visibly shows how curious he or she is about the materials.
If we all agree that curiosity is an inextricable part of education—and if research says the same, perhaps we need to rethink how we nurture curiosity in the classroom.
Here are a few tips courtesy of Engel:
Hire Curious Teachers
Last week, we talked about what principals consider to be 5 indespensible qualities of an effective teacher and we were pleased to find out that Engels’ solution was on our list.
The most successful students have an innate curiosity that can't be squelched. Likewise, the most effective teachers share this trait. Curiosity comes in all shapes and sizes: Perhaps you are curious about architecture or music; perhaps you are curious about your students. Whatever your interest is, explore it and never stop learning. Teachers who are excited about learning will have a much better time inspiring the same excitement in their students.
Try recording (audio or video) classroom lessons and activities and review them with a critical eye. Take note of your body language, the way you pose and invite questions and try to figure out why your students aren’t asking questions—or why they are. In addition to this, Engel suggests that you count questions and keep track of who asked them. Knowing how many (or how few) questions have been asked will encourage you to ask more questions.
Make questioning a goal—not a by-product
Do your lessons and classroom activities have predetermined outcomes? In other words, are you open to having your students undermine your expectations or come to their own conclusions? Are you giving them the time to reflect on a subject and then articulate their questions and comments? Don’t fear silence or feel the need to fill up space. Respect silence and use it as a space for negotiation and intellectual grappling.
There is no doubt about it, our students are passionate and energetic, qualities indispensable to any social movement. In spite of this, they often feel voiceless and powerless. “We’re only kids,” they say, “What can we do?”
We know that our students can do most anything they set their mind to—they just need our support and guidance.
In our guide, Learning to Serve and Serving to Learn, you’ll learn about 15 of our favorite volunteer and service-learning projects you can use to harness your students’ passion as they work towards meaningful social change.