Did curiosity kill the cat? I hope not. And, if we’re being sensible, no student will be harmed from being curious in the classroom!
We all know that young children have endless curiosity. They bombard us with questions: What? Where? How? and of course, Why? But they very quickly lose this curiosity in the classroom, especially when lessons are reduced to copying, repeating, pointing and memorising. Even when our lessons are dynamic and fun-filled, our young learners rarely show true curiosity.
I’m sure you’re familiar with Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on how schools kill creativity. And today’s obsession with high-stakes tests and school inspections certainly hasn’t improved things in the sixteen years that have passed since then.
How can we ensure that our students don’t lose their natural curiosity in the young learner classroom?
Here are seven ideas.
1 Create a safe environment
The atmosphere in your classroom needs to be conducive to experimentation and curiosity. If we want our students to be curious and ask questions, they need to know that the classroom is a safe space to do so. It also needs to be a place where they can make mistakes without being made to feel embarrassed. Make your classroom a place where your students are not afraid to try things out and fail in the process.
Make sure you work on community building from the very first lesson. Praise students when they are brave enough to try something new or experiment with new language. And model making mistakes yourself! Own your mistakes and show students that they are an important part of the learning process.
2 Give space to silence
This is NOT a classroom where all the students are working in silence. That doesn’t sound like the type of classroom that fosters curiosity. The introverted student’s great ally, silence can be an opportunity to develop ideas. Silence provides essential thinking time, and if we want out students to really think about what they are learning, giving them time to think is really helpful.
When we encourage students to speak or answer a question too early, it can have the opposite effect to what we intend. You student may feel pressured into answering, and this can be a very stressful experience.
3 Create a culture of questions
Questions are food for curiosity. When we allow space for learner questions, we are on our way to making learning meaningful. Encourage students to ask questions by asking them yourself. But make sure that the questions you ask are ones you don’t know the answer to! Make your questions authentic and keep them open.
What can you see in the picture?
What do you think about the X?
In the first question, if you can see the picture, you know the answer. All we’re doing here is inviting students to name vocabulary items or make simple sentences using a specific grammar structure. The question isn’t real.
In the second, we’re inviting students to express their opinion about something. They may well use the vocabulary or structure incidentally in their answer, but that’s not the main objective – it’s to find out what the student thinks.
See a follow-up post with more ideas about effective questions.
4 Encourage observation
Look at the picture at the top of this post. It shows a kitten exploring its surroundings. Cats are nosy creatures (hence the saying) and love to explore. But they also spend time observing. A cat can sit immobile for a long time, just watching (and waiting for) a prey and an opportunity to pounce.
Bring in objects, photos, art. Invite students to slow down and give them time to observe. Take a multisensory approach and encourage them to use their senses to smell, touch, taste. Have them look at things from different perspectives, up close and far away. The longer they spend, the more things they will notice.
5 Give space to emotions
We want our learners to be happy in class, and we attempt to achieve this by planning fun activities and enjoyable topics. Of course, we want a positive atmosphere where our students are working happily and getting along. However sometimes this leads to us invalidating students’ real feelings. How often have you said the words “cheer up” or “don’t cry, it’s ok” when one of your younger students has got upset?
When we have a truly open and curious classroom where students are allowed to explore avenues of interest, sometimes negative emotions can appear: frustration, annoyance, feelings of incompetence, not to mention relationship issues during group work. It’s important to acknowledge that students may have these feelings and help them manage them successfully.
More ideas on this to come in a new blog post.
6 Model wonder
Model, model, model. If we want out students to act in a certain way, it’s essential to model it. Be curious, ask question, and show wonder.
What do I mean by that?
Use your voice, facial expression and body language to express how amazing something is. Intonation is really important as is the language you use.
“Wow! Look at this leaf!”
“It’s a leaf.”
One word of warning though – make sure you’re being authentic. False enthusiasm will show.
7 Bring in the outside world
In number 6, the example was a leaf. It’s so easy to bring a leaf into the classroom. Or in fact, any object that connects the classroom with the outside world. Where possible, instead of showing a picture, bring in a prop or artefact. Let students explore it using their senses. There’s nothing like a 3D object that you can hold in your hand and feel the weight of, touch and notice its texture, smell.
If you can’t bring in an item related to your topic, see what you can do with technology. You may find AR or VR examples or take your students to real places using Google Maps and Street View.
How do you foster curiosity in your classroom?