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Can We Teach Curiosity?

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Joseph Heller’s WWII novel Catch 22 gives us this famous quote: “There was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever they want to.” Which reminds me of my Uncle Alex, who loved to tell stories about his Army drill sergeant, with whom he often locked horns. “Watson,” the drill sergeant would shout in response to his questions, “Every time you think, you weaken this organization!”


My uncle learned to stop asking questions—a lesson he should have learned long before he enlisted. Researchers report that preschoolers ask more than 100 questions per hour. However, once we enter school, we ask five or less, and the questions continue to decline as we reach higher grades. Maybe preschool is our learning peak?


Like my uncle’s old drill sergeant, we teachers don’t always prioritize curiosity and independent thinking, because we get squeezed by the twin vice-plates of standard curriculum and (more recently) censorship. A teacher can be disciplined for allowing students to study outside of the core, or for allowing them to ask ‘uncomfortable’ questions.


But I digress. Often. I’m a lateral thinker. I seem to be wired for free association and curious inquiry. The highly curious are considered curiosities. I’m not sure how many of us there are because, oddly, researchers don’t seem very curious about curiosity—there aren’t a lot of published studies—and the research I’ve found seems not to ask that most basic of questions: How many people are exceptionally curious?


If you aren’t highly motivated to question everything, does that mean you are temperamentally incurious? No!!! Curiosity, like inventiveness, is a fundamental, universal human quality. We all used to ask more than 100 questions an hour, after all. Far more than the curious cat of the old adage, and yet it didn’t kill us, thankfully.


As a fiction writer and part-time teacher, I’m deeply impressed by how ELA teachers encourage natural curiosity. Rather than drill students on definitions, many teachers encourage character and plot analysis, and they give students opportunities to develop their own thoughts, whether in short stories or creative essays about their readings.


Perhaps the most thoughtful exercise is to generate questions. Do you ever ask your students to prepare a list of questions about their reading, to be shared with the class or a breakout group? (I’m curious whether a class could produce and discuss a hundred questions in an hour. If preschoolers can, why not? I think I’ll try next time I’m in the classroom!)


All subjects can engage students’ curiosity and encourage questioning, but ELA may naturally take the lead. How do you stimulate students’ curiosity in your classroom? Do you ask them to come up with alternate opening sentences or endings? Brainstorm plot ideas? Make up new slang for characters in futurist short stories they write? I know there are a lot of great teaching techniques out there. If you send yours, I’ll round them up into a later dispatch and publish it here. Thanks!


P.S. I specialize in middle-grade and teen novels, which often are coming-of-age tales, and I’m wondering if they are actually all about curiosity. Could that be the hidden message behind every story in which a young protagonist goes on a quest? Don’t they start by being curious about something–and then end up down a rabbit hole or through a wardrobe, which sets them off on the very adventure they need? C.S. Lewis certainly thinks so based on the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, in which Lucy’s curiosity is what launches her on her magical adventures:


“‘This is very queer,’ she said, and went a step or two further.”


A step or two further! Shouldn’t that be the goal for our students–and, perhaps, ourselves?


Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on Amazon.com, or free to teachers at www.websterpress.com. He has taught at UMass Amherst and North Start Center for Teens, and since moving to Vermont, The Grammar School and Compass School. His ELA curriculum materials are available in the Teacher’s Lounge of the Webster Press website.




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