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Classroom Activities to Stimulate Curiosity

by Michael Stratford

You can stimulate curiosity in your students through questions, according to cognitive researcher and teacher Daniel Willingham, if three conditions are fulfilled: The background information is there, the student engagement is there and the questions are the right ones. Activities that give students all three of these conditions stimulate not only curiosity but also the thought processes that lead to more curiosity.

Let the Class Find Topics First

To ignite curiosity, George Loewenstein suggests introducing limited background knowledge in an area where students have shown interest. An excellent starting place for your class is a free write: Introduce any topic -- choosing from a list of five words, say -- and have students write for five minutes. There are no rubrics, no restrictions, no set goal. At the end of the time, students share their writings in groups and you ask, "What ideas are most or all of us interested in?" Post the ideas on the wall or Smart Board.

Let the Questions Flow

You as the teacher have not created the topics of discussion; the students have. Now comes the hard part -- hard because it goes against current thinking about pre-planning lessons: Abandon the idea of a set goal or class product and just talk about the topic the class chose. Allow any and all questions. Along the way, count questions your students ask. If there are few, your teaching style may be discouraging curiosity. The great thing about this process, as Susan Engel advocates it, is that it encourages you to allow more questioning.

Do It Like Socrates

Your next step is to discuss the questions raised in a manner that does not lead to automatic answers that you as the teacher already know; a Socratic model is a wonderful process to use here. This teaching experience allows students to discover answers at their own pace, to test hypotheses over time, to support answers with reliable sources. Sometimes students may learn what Socrates knew: that some questions have no answers. But the triad of free-writing, active questioning and Socratic discussion will stimulate the curiosity needed to seek, if not find, answers.

Use the Triad

Imagine a classroom where the curiosity triad is used. A single class-centered question is proposed, such as "Why does music affect us the way it does?" There are limitless activities that can arise from this single question -- in-class instrumentality, elements and history of music, styles and musical genres, emotional responses to songs -- that both satisfy student curiosity and foster more of it. This self-perpetuating curiosity is an ideal classroom situation.

About the Author

Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.

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