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Cultivating Classroom Curiosity: The importance of student questions

An Atlantic article from 2010 entitled What Makes a Great Teacher noted that “Asking ‘Does anyone have any questions?’ does not work [as a check for understanding], and it’s a classic rookie mistake.” Yet, in classrooms where very few, if any, students are asking questions, how should educators help cultivate students’ curiosity, or their “urge to know more” (Engel, 2011, 2015; Grossnickle, 2016)? Does having the teacher ask for questions help? And, more significantly, does teaching questioning help? 

My colleagues and I have spent the past year investigating various ways of fostering curiosity in adolescent students in public schools, charter schools, and a private high school. We identified three key strategies to cultivate classroom curiosity. 

1. Find ways to show appreciation for student questioning by allowing time for it, eliciting student questions, and giving prominence to student questions

In one school, teachers showed appreciation for their students’ questioning by allowing for flexibility in their agenda in order to answer students’ questions. Teachers also expressed thanks for a student’s question that helped to push the classroom conversation forward or commented on their appreciation for a student’s questioning and thinking. One teacher explained, “So …you were initially sharing your question, and you were thinking out loud, which was wonderful, and even as you were thinking…you connected other ideas later--- I thought that was awesome.” In another school, where discussion-based learning is the principle method of teaching, teachers made students' questions the centerpiece of their education. As one teacher in our study noted, “You spend a lot of time talking about the essential questions or critical questions and what constitutes a good question." Because, as another teacher observed, “Question asking is the safest way to enter a conversation.” 

2. Create classroom cultures where error is normal and growth through mistake-making is emphasized

In one school, collaboration between peers was helpful in fostering a norm of mistake-making and error. Students explained that they liked the discussion format with their peers because they felt that asking questions of their peers was easier than asking questions of their teachers. One student commented that with peers she was more willing to “dig deeper and maybe make some mistakes,” because with peers there are “no conditions on the thoughts that you put out onto the table” (versus teachers, who grade you). Also, collaborative discussions, where peers helped each other find answers to their questions, also made students feel more willing and able to explore their curiosity. In addition, teachers often modeled question-asking, not knowing an answer, being wrong, and making mistakes in order to help make those behaviors more normal in the classroom. As one teacher noted, “I think it goes back to the modeling…I will admit to students like ‘you know what, I don’t know the answer to this but uh, we can look it up, let’s figure it out.’” 

3. Find ways to teach students to question

In four public schools, we asked teachers to implement a question-brainstorming intervention, the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), created by the Right Question Institute, to see how it impacted students’ curiosity. The QFT is an easy-to-implement, six-step process designed to help teach students how to ask their own questions. Initial results indicate that the QFT has a significant positive impact on students’ curiosity. For example, one teacher noted, “Students start off with silly and/or basic [questions] then become more curious and engaged as more [questions] are asked.” This sentiment was echoed by numerous teachers—that students’ curiosity increased as their frequency of questions increased or as they delved deeper into the activity.

So, we have found that “does anyone have a question?” may be a very good question to ask, but it needs to be supported by a classroom culture that allows for, praises, normalizes, and teaches students questioning. 


About Shelby
Shelby Clark is a doctoral candidate in applied human development at Boston University. Her research focuses on the intellectual character development of adolescents, with a particular focus on methods of fostering curiosity in schools. She was previously a school counselor in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can reach Shelby at Sclark2@bu.edu

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