How to Create a Curious Classroom Culture and Inspire Innovative Thinking

Curiosity is an essential part of learning, growing and interacting with others. A curious person is also an agile one, who can adapt easily to new surroundings and situations. There are many ways teachers can help students ask better questions and become more curious learners.

To make curiosity an everyday part of your classroom culture, here’s how to get your students asking questions, challenging ideas and exploring new thoughts.

Promoting Curiosity

The first step in promoting more curiosity among students is recognizing and rewarding it. Developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell says that teachers should focus less on praising good grades and more on praising actions based on curiosity, such as questioning, exploration and investigating. This teaches students that they’re rewarded for their motivations and thinking patterns, rather than their grades.

Education thought leader Bernard Bull agrees that a shift away from praising HIGH grades can be helpful. As Bull puts it, it’s important that classrooms maintain “a culture that truly celebrates learning itself, not these numeric symbols that we associate with it.” Keeping this in mind can help you remember that grades are just grades, reminding you to praise student actions and thought patterns as well.

Questions and Curiosity

We’ve discussed how asking questions can promote more creative behavior amongst students. Questioning is also an important part of classroom curiosity.

As cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham explains, questioning is a core part of sustained intellectual curiosity. He says that students who learn to “wonder, probe, find problems, observe closely and formulate questions” are more likely to become intellectual adults.

Another benefit of questioning is that it can help students retain information better. Education writer Marianne Stenger demonstrates this fact by referencing a study on curiosity which proved that the right questions (those that piqued the participant’s curiosity) increased activity in the hippocampus — the part of the brain that retains memory. Respondents also showed increased activity in the region of the brain that promotes pleasure, suggesting that inquiry-based learning can help students become happier and better at remembering lessons.

How to Model Questioning

The first step in helping your students ask more questions is to ask more questions yourself, according to teacher Tracy Ostwald Kowald. By modeling curiosity, students gain a first-hand experience of the processes and rewards involved in curiosity.

One way to exemplify curiosity is to start a new hobby or skill and involve students in the process. Share with them your excitement, explain what you learned and show how trying something new helped you and challenged you.

If you’re not sure where to start, Carly Stec offers a few ideas at HubSpot, suggesting you start by tapping into a subject matter that interests you but you don’t know much about. Whether it’s the Egyptian pyramids or French cooking, sharing your learning and discovery process with your students will help them feel more confident when navigating unfamiliar subjects and ideas.

rubiks cube

How to Promote Questioning

Another approach to incorporating more questioning in the classroom comes from critical literacy advocate Terry Heick. He says it’s important for students to revisit old questions throughout the year. By having students write down their inquiries at the beginning of the year, they can come back to these questions later to reflect on how they think about them differently.

An additional part of modeling curiosity is being open and clear about being wrong. As you begin to pose questions, be sure to stay open and accepting of all answers and ideas. Specifically, productivity writer Stephanie Vozza adds that this requires teachers to get rid of the idea of opinions being right or wrong. When students are less focused on being correct, they’ll feel more free and open to explore ideas. Additionally, this helps students feel more open to the ideas of the people around them, which helps reduce classroom conflict.

Exploration

When students are allowed to explore their thoughts and surroundings, they learn the benefits of being curious. Gifted support teacher Gerald Aungst says that some of the most personally fascinating discoveries arise during everyday play and interaction. Students who are given opportunities to make messes and try new ways of thinking are more likely to discover innovative patterns and possibilities.

An additional benefit of exploratory thinking is that it allows students time to discover and cultivate their personal passions. Teacher Maricela Montoy-Wilson says that allowing students to explore helps them make deeper, more meaningful connections to the topics and material at hand. When students feel invested in and connected to what they’re working on, they’re more likely to feel energized about their topics.

To promote independent exploration throughout the day, teachers can work to make connections between learning activities and student interests. Asking students questions and allowing them time to learn makes it easier for teachers to drive passion during everyday lessons. For example, Maanvi Singh at NprEd says that a student who’s interested in space may benefit from a space-themed question about multiplication. Students will remember how the teacher related to his or her interests, and they’ll also remember how they worked through the process to answer the question.

teacher and pupils working at desk together at the elementary school

Teachers can also promote questioning by filling the room with objects that tell a story. Artist and educator Stacey Goodman says that this is also an opportunity for teachers to incorporate certain objects they love into the classroom.

In his own classroom, Goodman keeps an old metal film splicer on his desk. It allows him to talk to students about the history of film. It also sparks curiosity about Goodman’s history as a film teacher, allowing his students the opportunity to connect with their teacher about a passion project and hobby.

Syracuse University research professor and professor of practice Marilyn P. Arnone adds that teachers can encourage curiosity by asking questions such as “what would happen if…?” This kind of active curiosity engages students and encourages them to learn from their own thinking patterns.

Classroom Curiosity Models

If you’re trying to promote more curious thinking in your classroom, daily practices and routines can be helpful. Kindergarten teaching blog Roots and Wings suggests starting the day with time for individual learning and play. This gives students a chance to start their day without a specific agenda or task in mind. Instead, they’re allowed to dedicate ample time to their personal choices and curiosity.

Allotting time to developing curiosity also helps students become more comfortable with challenging and ambiguous situations. Ambiguity and uncertainty can be uncomfortable territory for both teachers and students, which is why these thinking patterns aren’t approached in the classroom often. However, education writer Linda Flanagan at Mind/Shift says students who are made to feel comfortable with uncertainty are apt to be more curious and innovative in their overall approach to thinking.

 
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