Often, modern teaching tools stifle students’ curiosity and critical thinking potential—but this doesn’t have to be the case.

4 keys for unlocking student curiosity and critical thinking

Often, modern teaching tools stifle students’ curiosity—but this doesn’t have to be the case

Key points:

As an educator, I have always been fascinated by my students’ innate curiosity. From an early age, they have an insatiable desire to learn. Anyone who spends time around young children will find themselves peppered with questions, questions, questions! “Why is the sky blue?”, “Why do my fingers get wrinkly in the water?”, “Why do dogs wag their tails?” This natural inquiry can be a powerful force for education. So, it’s a little disappointing when modern teaching tools and strategies ignore–or subvert–this incredible curiosity.      

Education doesn’t have to be guided by rigid definitions and practices. We can make a transition from linear, hierarchical teaching into a richer, more experiential way of learning.

It all begins by making four simple shifts towards deeper inquiry:

  1. Curiosity: If we want to foster student curiosity, teachers will first need to step away from the idea that our job is to tell students how they are “supposed” to do something. Instead, we want to encourage students to be thinkers and problem solvers. One simple way to make this happen is with the Mystery Learning Targets strategy. Post learning targets on the wall — but hide a few key words. Students will engage more acutely when they need to figure out what the exact target might be, and you’ll be able to preserve an element of mystery!
  2. Choice: When we open up choice to students, we allow them to determine which path they want to follow and how they’ll figure things out as they go. One useful strategy for introducing choice into lessons is with Choice Boards or Learning Menus. These increase student ownership by providing students with a bingo board or learning menu filled with intellectually rich activities. Simply allow students to choose which activities to complete to fill out their boards.       
  3. Explanation: We want students to construct their understanding by explaining their thinking, and we want to encourage that explanation in innovative, creative ways. One way to do this is by having students make a mascot that represents something you’re learning about. Have students explain the symbolism behind their mascot as a way of probing their understanding of the subject. This encourages them to dig down into their learning and consider the information from multiple angles.
  4. Cognitive Load: Cognitive Load is about shifting the majority of thinking to our students. We don’t want to overwhelm them, but we do want to encourage them to start investing in their own learning. A good strategy for accomplishing this is to have students record or create lessons that could be used to teach the same content to next year’s students. Not only can this provide you with useful assets to help other students learn, but it reinforces the learning students have when they think about how to teach it to others.

When we recognize the potential of inquiry learning to cultivate and capitalize on student curiosity, it opens an entirely new horizon of possibilities on the landscape of education. Let’s not let this precious resource go to waste. Let’s build classrooms where students can embrace their innate curiosity and creativity. In doing so, we create a world where the promise of discovery lies around every corner.

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