Fostering Curiosity and Answering Questions from Children

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” —

Albert Einstein

Importance of Curiosity
As Scott Barry Kaufman wrote in The Atlantic magazine, “When Orville Wright, of the Wright brothers fame, was told by a friend that he and his brother would always be an example of how far someone can go in life with no special advantages, he emphatically responded, ‘to say we had no special advantages … the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity’.” (Kaufman, 2017)

Curiosity can be defined as “the recognition, pursuit, and intense desire to explore novel, challenging, and uncertain events.” Curiosity is perhaps as important a factor as intelligence in determining how well a student does at school. When combined, curiosity and hard work account for success just as much as intelligence. Curious children tend to spend a great deal of time reading and acquiring knowledge because they see a gap between what they know and what they want to know – not because they are motivated by marks or grades.

To be sure, curiosity makes learning more effective and enjoyable. It also makes students ask questions and seek out answers to them. None of the great scientists would have made the discoveries and inventions they did without a healthy dash of curiosity.
A research study done at University of California-Davis to find out what goes on in the brain when our curiosity is aroused, revealed the following two main findings:

1. Curiosity prepares the brain for learning: Curiosity helps us learn even information we don’t consider all that interesting or important. This is because curiosity puts the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information. So if a teacher is able to arouse students’ curiosity about something they will be better prepared to learn things that they would normally consider boring or difficult. For instance, if a student struggles with math, personalizing math problems to match their specific interests could help them better remember how to go about solving similar math problems in the future.

2. Curiosity makes learning more rewarding: Curiosity can also make learning a more rewarding experience for students. When curiosity is sparked, there is increased activity not only in the brain region involved in memories, but also in the brain circuit that is related to reward and pleasure. This circuit relies on dopamine, a “feel-good” chemical that relays messages between neurons and gives us a sort of high.

10 Ways to Stimulate a Student’s Curiosity

1. Value and reward curiosity
Avoid rewarding students only when their curiosity leads to a desired outcome or good grade. It is more important to notice and reinforce curiosity in students by describing how their explorations, investigations and questions are contributing to their own or classroom learning. Thus, you make them realize that curiosity leads to rewards irrespective of the grade they go on to achieve.

2. Teach students how to ask quality questions
Quality questions are a vital medium for curiosity. Don’t be like Google, which is great at answering but not at all good at stimulating questions. Good questions enquire “why,” “what if,” and “how.”

3. Ask questions and question answers
When it comes to curiosity, it’s the question, and not the answer, that engages students. Focusing on answers first actually dampens a student’s natural curiosity. To draw students 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. Don’t just present a new fact, but elaborate with a question. For example, “Beethoven kept composing as his hearing was getting worse. I wonder how he felt about that?” This approach will make the students learn to frame their own questions and even question the answers. As George Carlin said, “Don’t just teach your children to read. Teach them to question what they read.”

4. Encourage students to tinker around
Tinkering with materials, thoughts, and emotions stimulates curiosity and leads to innovative outcomes. Encourage students to create a new widget, essay, blog article, poem, science experiment, service, or product from their explorations.

5. Let the curiosity spread
Allow more-curious and less-curious students to work together in project-based learning. Curiosity is contagious in groups, especially when they are working toward a real-world common goal. That helps to cross-pollinate questions and new ideas.

6. Give ‘curious’ projects
Post some interesting questions and encourage students to find the answers to them. Assign a project that requires them to research something different. For example, when teaching the Tempest by Shakespeare, you can ask the students to learn more about that the time period, the monarchial system etc. This can fuel the student’s curiosity in the actual lesson.

7. Teach students to be skeptical
To be skeptical means “to inquire” or “to look around.” A skeptic requires additional evidence before accepting someone’s claims as true. He or she challenges the status quo with open-minded, deep questioning. Einstein was a skeptic. So was Steve Jobs.

8. Learn their interests
Spend some time to figure out what your students are interested in. Then, try and incorporate their interests into your lessons to build engagement. This will nurture the student’s curiosity, encouraging them to explore and learn more.

9. Model curiosity
Be curious yourself. Display an open and inquisitive attitude to new and familiar activities, ideas, people, and cultures. Curiosity is contagious. Think-aloud while reading or having a conversation with a student. Then, you can explain the how and what and why of your thinking process. You may pose the question you have—and, show the courage to follow that curiosity wherever it takes you. You can also do this by exploring students’ interests, expanding upon their ideas, and engaging them in meaningful dialogue.

10. Encourage them to be curious at home
Help parents understand the importance of curiosity in their child’s development and suggest ways that they can foster it at home.
And, as Kaufman writes, “Stimulating classroom activities are those that offer novelty, surprise, and complexity, allowing greater autonomy and student choice; they also encourage students to ask questions, question assumptions, and achieve mastery through revision rather than judgment-day-style testing.” (Kaufman, 2017)

Strategies for Answering Students’ Questions
Here is some useful advice about handling questions from students (Office of Graduate Studies UNL, n.d.):
• Repeat the question or paraphrase it: This draws the other students’ attention to the question and lets the student who asked it see whether you understood what he/she asked.
• If the question is a good one, say so: This boosts the student’s self-confidence and encourages him and others to ask questions.
• When you answer a question, answer it directly first: Later, go off on any tangents that come to you. And when you’re done, ask if you’ve answered the question.
• When you answer questions, don’t focus all your attention on the student who asked: Look at the whole class, so that it doesn’t become a conversation between you and a single student.
• Attempt to help the student answer his own question: This may require prompting through reminders of relevant previously learned information. Or this strategy may require you to ask the student a lower-level question or a related question to begin his thought process. The advantage of this strategy is that the student may learn the process of searching for answers to his own questions rather than relying on the teacher. The risk is that the process can be embarrassing or so threatening that the student will be too intimidated to ask questions in the future. Use compassion to ensure that does not happen.
• Refer the student to a resource where she can find the answer.
• Redirect content-related questions to the whole class: Consider turning some questions back to the class to answer. Don’t feel that you need to be responsible for answering them all. Get all the students involved in this process. This encourages more student participation.
• Answer a question with more questions: Additional probing questions will get students to focus on the part of the question that is most relevant to the answer.
• Promote a discussion among students: This is a useful strategy in situations where there is considerable difference of opinion about the answer. And you will end up involving more than just one or two students in the process of generating an answer.
• Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know the answer: If you don’t know the answer to a student question, never fake an answer. Admit that you cannot answer the question. Tell students that you will seek the answer and let them know.
• Set aside certain times in the class when you deal only with basic questions: This strategy can help those students who are afraid to ask about basics or fundamentals they may have missed.

Call to Action
Butterfly Fields’ whole focus when developing its STEM kits and learning materials is on sparking the curiosity in students, making them ask questions and seek out answers. So, you would be well-advised to contact us for discussing this topic further.
References
Kaufman, S. B., 2017. Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/the-underrated-gift-of-curiosity/534573/
[Accessed 13 Feb 2020].
Office of Graduate Studies UNL, n.d. Asking and Answering Questions. [Online]
Available at: https://www.unl.edu/gtahandbook/asking-and-answering-questions
[Accessed 13 Feb 2020].

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