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How to Build Curiosity and Critical Thinking Within the Classroom

Editor's Note: Ali Giska, a literacy coach in Berlin, Maryland, participated in the Teachers for Global Classrooms Program (TGC) and traveled to Brazil. The experience inspired her to work to instill curiosity in her students.

By guest blogger Alison Giska

During my global education experience in Brazil, I experienced firsthand the sheer power of curiosity and wonder. My host teacher took me on a day trip to visit an isolated school in the mountains. As the tiny village school came into view, I could see that nine or so classrooms surrounded an open-air square where students with guitars were gathered in a semi-circle to greet us. They sang and strummed, and then their teachers joined us all for a meal.

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I had so many questions! I asked the students about their interest in music, their life on the mountain, and the subjects in school they enjoyed the most. They had just as much interest in my life as a teacher in the United States. Together, we were engrossed in wonder.

When I returned home from my trip, I reflected on how I could ignite that same feeling of wonder within the walls of the classroom. I reflected on whether my current practices truly sustained that curiosity in the classroom and encouraged students to innovate, explore, and wonder. I began to ask myself these questions:

  • How am I modeling curiosity for my students?
  • How does my learning environment support critical thinking and wonder?
  • How can I continually encourage students to be curious about the world?

Teacher Modeling Through Read Alouds

As educators, we need to stay curious ourselves. While experiences like teaching abroad and global classroom programs can certainly build our awareness and curiosity, we can model our openness to new perspectives right in the classroom. One way to do this is by reading a variety of provocative, engaging texts, both fiction and non-fiction, to students of any age.

Read alouds can bring the world to our classrooms, and the more awe we find in books, the more enticing these words will be to our students. Literacy expert Lucy Calkins acknowledges that we can't physically take all of our students to experience various parts of the world. However, we can bring the world to them through books. In The Art of Teaching Reading, she says reading aloud can "give our children the words that will take them to new worlds, launch new investigations, and introduce new concepts."

Thinking and wondering aloud is a way to model curiosity and make it accessible to every student. The key is to start with books that truly matter to you and your students, and then use phrases and questions like these:

  • I'm starting to think differently about...
  • What else can I learn about this?
  • I wonder why the author...

As teachers ponder aloud while reading, students then engage in that same critical thinking both independently and with their peers.

The key to modeling curiosity is to be authentic. When teachers are genuinely enthralled by the world around them, students will be too. Inquiry teacher Jennifer Barnes models this by carrying a tape measure to all of her non-fiction read alouds. When she reads animal statistics, like the length of a giraffe's tongue, she stretches the tape measure out in front of a sea of rapt eyes. Her curiosity about the world comes to life in front her students in authentic ways.

A Learning Environment Based on Inquiry

Dialogue and inquiry are cornerstones for a classroom rich in curiosity and critical thinking. Yet, students ask fewer and fewer questions as they progress through school. This can change with the right learning environment. If the culture of a classroom promotes inquiry, respect, and risk-taking, students begin to value asking questions just as much as giving answers. What does this look like in the classroom and how can teachers facilitate inquiry?

QFT.pngThe Question Formulation Technique (QFT) process facilitates curiosity and critical thinking. It allows students to drive the inquiry by asking their own questions that are sparked by a question focus. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, developers of QFT and the Right Question Institute, stress that the question focus is a stimulus for jumpstarting student questions, and not a question itself. In fact, it is quite the opposite—it is meant to stimulate thinking that is then expressed through questions.

After students record their questions, they then review, sort, and act on these wonderings. In classrooms where QFT is used frequently, students feel more in control of their learning, more willing to take risks, and more engaged in learning. They are empowered by the freedom to seek out answers to the things in the world that interest them. It is a powerful tool that creates independent thinkers and self-directed learners.

The Outcomes of Sparking Curiosity

Educators who model curiosity and provide a classroom environment allowing students to do the same are building global citizens. They are building citizens who care about the world around them and are willing to understand vastly different perspectives. When students are truly curious about the world, they stop and listen. This critical skill teaches them to empathize, build relationships, and form new opinions. 

When students turn and talk during a read aloud, they have opportunities to be truly curious about the ideas in the text and how others view them. When students become listeners and develop genuine curiosity, they ask, "Why did you just say that? Can you tell me more?"

During the QFT process, students learn to not only ask questions, but to refrain from judging the questions of others. They begin to accept other perspectives and ways of looking at the world. This acceptance then leads to more questions as one curious and open mind ignites another.

We also must remember that curiosity and critical thinking do not follow a script--they can be messy, unpredictable things. If we can embrace this, nurture the chaos, then we can gently guide students to see the world with wondrous eyes.

Connect with Alison, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Quote image created on Pablo.

Photo caption: Fifth graders respond to an illustration depicting slavery using the QFT process.

Photo taken by and used with permission of Christina Mcquaid.

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