This post was originally published in June 2015. It has been updated for accuracy and relevancy in October 2021.
Think about the last time your student read a book, watched a movie, or engaged in a conversation that sparked their curiosity. Did they perk up? Remain focused and attentive?
When something ignites your curiosity, regions of your brain associated with reward, memory, and motivation actually "fire up" with activity. In other words, curiosity can be a great motivator that makes the brain sincerely want to learn. Researchers from the University of California, Davis, found a link between motivation and curiosity when they set out to understand how curiosity affects learning.
Practical Tips to Inspire Curiosity in Students
Teachers, parents, and Learning Coaches of online school students know how crucial it is to inspire curiosity every day to keep students engaged with learning. Here are five strategies you can use to ignite curiosity in school and beyond:
1. Be Curious Yourself
Model an open, inquisitive attitude to new and familiar activities, ideas, people, and cultures. Curiosity is contagious. Try a new sport, start a new hobby, or take an online course in an unfamiliar subject. Seek out people with different backgrounds and viewpoints, and then actively listen to what they have to say. As you take on these new challenges, share your experience with your student—the excitement, the rewards, and the challenges.
In the process, you’ll inspire your student to tackle new subjects, try new extracurricular activities, and persevere through the initial discomfort that often comes with learning something unfamiliar.
2. Ask Questions and Question Answers
You've heard the saying, "It's the journey, not the destination." When it comes to curiosity, it's the question, not the answer, that engages students. The destination has value and will reward a student's hard work. The journey, however, makes that end result more exciting and satisfying. Curiosity starts the journey and motivates a learner to keep going, no matter how rocky the path.
In his book Why Don't Students Like School?, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham argues that focusing on answers first actually dampens a student’s natural curiosity. To keep students engaged and draw them in, you need to ask open-ended questions that encourage them to seek out their own answers—questions that cannot be answered with a yes or a no or a shrug of the shoulders.
Open-ended questions can begin with phrases like:
- What would happen if …
- What would it be like to …
- Why did …
- How do we know that …
- What did you think when …
Consider the format FQR: Fact, Question, Response.
When presenting a new fact, expand with a question. For example, "Beethoven kept composing as his hearing was getting worse. I wonder how he felt about that?" A student’s response might be, "I'd be scared and angry."
With you as a model, students will learn to frame their own questions and even go on to question the answers. In the words of the late George Carlin, "Don't just teach your children to read. Teach them to question what they read."
3. Practice and Encourage Active Listening
Of course, great questions are pointless if no one is listening. When you actively listen to your student, you're also demonstrating how he or she can live curiously and communicate effectively. By example, show your student how to listen with full attention, how to play back or paraphrase the speaker's comments, and how to ask questions that generate more information and maybe even more questions.
4. Look for the Hook
Relate "uninteresting" or difficult subjects directly to your student's interests and daily life. One of the advantages of personalized learning found at online schools is the ability to tailor lessons to your student's interests, strengths, and challenges. If your student loves sports, then explore a favorite game through its venue locations (geography), statistics (math), or background on a favorite player (memoir or biography). Team names themselves can have amazing backstories. The Lansing Lugnuts and the Burlington Bumblebees, for example … no, I'll let your curiosity lead you!
Find books related to your student's interests. Students who love horses might be curious about how the invention of the automobile diminished the need for horses as everyday transportation. A science lover may relate to the history of inventions or to Clara Barton's impact on modern medicine. With the right hook to your student's interests, you can completely transform almost any subject into a fascinating source of information.
5. Present New Information in Chunks
Now that you've piqued your student's curiosity, don't risk killing it with information overload. Research shows that for every ten minutes of lesson time, online school students need at least two minutes to process what they've learned. A physical and mental break helps the body and the brain refresh themselves. So use the 10/2, or "chunk and chew," strategy. By presenting new information in 10-minute chunks and limiting it to 2–3 main points, you'll keep your student's attention and make the information easier to absorb.
Resources to Ignite Curiosity for Learning
Students are naturally curious! Find ways ignite their curiosity with fun activities including how to build a Rube Goldberg machine on the Connections Academy Resource Hub.