The key to building a curious classroom might be letting your students ask more questions

Why do sparkles sparkle? How did people come up with names for Greek gods? Why does Saturn have cool names for moons, but earth just has “moon”? What is the purpose of a solar eclipse? Inquiring middle schoolers want to know, and prompting them to ask may be the key to building curiosity in the classroom.

At the age of two, children are relentless in asking every question they can imagine. When those innocent questioning minds reach adolescence, their questions about the world are expressed less frequently, numerously, or seemingly less naturally as self-conscious young adults.

With curriculum and test prep lessons crowding time on task in the classroom, middle school students will tell us that there is no time to really ask many of their own questions at school. Instead they hear.

“That’s not the topic we’re discussing”
“We don’t have time to answer that”
“That’s a question for another day”
(which may or may never come!)

What’s more, students relay that they are often chastised for asking questions at inopportune times, especially random or silly questions. With no time to ask a question that might require more than a few seconds to answer, students learn the classroom is not a place to ask questions freely and that the practice of asking questions can be uncomfortable and even embarrassing at times.

If we expect our students to become active questioners in their lives, teachers must continue to encourage, support, and develop the habit of questioning as our young people make the transition to adulthood. Surely throughout history, we have learned society is harmed tremendously when tough questions are not asked. Imagine the loss to society’s sustained progress if fewer and fewer adults are willing to ask important questions to school board members, city councilmen, or elected officials. And — what is the cost to citizens if they shy away from asking questions to salespersons, realtors, doctors, or attorneys? How will scientists find cures or engineers solve problems if no one is willing or able to ask the kinds of questions that lead the search to finding answers? Questions, not answers, are the true catalysts for learning, and certainly, school should be one place where students can ask questions they have about the world.

Introducing Question Boards to your Classroom

This is why I started doing a Question Board procedure in my classroom, an idea first developed by my teammate Vanessa Seward. Question Board requires very few materials. All that is needed is a surface where students can write questions that can be seen by classmates and time to discuss the questions. I like to set aside 20 minutes once a week for the Question Board activity; however, I know that I have a more flexible schedule than most teachers, so my hope is that teachers can find at least five minutes once a week to let a student ask a question and lead a discussion among peers.

I use Question Board with my students as a procedure to welcome students to class. Students excited to ask a question sometimes race to be one of the five who have the opportunity to write their question on the board as they enter the classroom. Any question is allowed, though students are told at the beginning that their questions must be appropriate for the classroom. One by one, the students who posed questions on the Question board lead a discussion with their classmates, exploring answers to their question while only one person speaks at a time.

Discussions might flow and end naturally or I might move the questions along, telling a student he/she has the last word on that topic. If time runs short, a few questions can be saved for another time. Some questions like “Why do sparkles sparkle?” will have factual answers and could be looked up on electronic devices; however, students need to wrestle with guesses first in order to practice and exercise thinking with their own storehouse of knowledge.

Students no matter their age or address have questions about their world, so this activity could work in just about any classroom. There are some required and necessary conditions, however, if Question Board is going to thrive in a classroom.

Set up the right conditions

First, teachers must provide a safe classroom environment where no question that is written will be considered strange, silly, or stupid. The first time a student calls out a question as being unworthy to ask, the teacher might pause and ask the class, “Well, does anyone have an answer to the question?” Students might be surprised to learn most any question can be answered with some kind of logical response, and supposed “stupid” questions can possibly be stretched into a question that can provide interesting responses. If there isn’t much substance to a question, that question simply won’t have much discussion, and students will move on! Students will also need to be able to ask and phrase a question and take turns sharing thoughts in a discussion with only one speaker at a time. Depending on students’ ability levels with these skills, teachers may want to teach these skills before or during the activity as the need arises.

As long as students have the chance to pose their own questions and then discuss the answers, teachers can modify the question board procedure to fit their own classroom. I have learned so much about the worlds of individual students during this questioning activity — about their interests and passions, vocabulary and accumulated knowledge. I’ve also learned what students do not know and may need to know as well as information that needs correcting. In addition, I have discovered the discussions are a great opportunity to strengthen student discourse skills and embed historical or lesson content information along with personal anecdotes that teach little life lessons worth sharing with students. The Question Board activity is perfect for the teacher who lives for the teachable moments in a classroom that are unexpected and rich in learning.

Besides providing students with a little autonomy in the school day, the Question Board activity offers many positive benefits to students such as allowing students the benefit of discussing a wide range of topics under the guidance of a teacher. As the activity progresses throughout the year, students will become more skilled questioners, crafting their written questions to express exactly what they want to know. Likewise, if students do not understand specifically what a student is asking, students learn to ask the questioner to clarify the question. One other excellent benefit of the discussion process is that students are able to practice verbally expressing what they think as they develop their thinking in response to a question. In essence, they are practicing how to have a conversation about ideas. One last benefit is that students are excited to “get” to do the activity. They love it! I love it, too! One thing I love most about this project is that I learn what my students are curious about knowing, and this knowledge helps me become a better teacher. I’m currently studying how Question Board helps grow my students’ curiosity by looking at their self-reported curiosity behaviors, like whether they enjoy trying out new experiences or typically ask many questions.

I hope teachers interested in the Question Board activity might be curious enough to see how this activity will work in their own classrooms and give it a whirl. By establishing a safe place, a set time, and a routine procedure for students to ask questions of their own, teachers will invite students to be curious and do what curious people do — ask lots of questions. Hopefully then, students will grow the larger habit of not only dreaming up curious and “curiouser” questions in their future lives but also be willing to ask them, an even “curiouser” habit that will lead to clearer, deeper thinking, new and better ideas, and smarter decisions.

Tracie Slattery is a fifth and sixth grade teacher at Holt Middle School and McNair Middle School in Fayetteville Arkansas and is in her 15th year of teaching. She and her fellow colleague, Vanessa Seward, are recipients of a Teacher Innovation Grant. They are currently carrying out their Question Board procedure every week with their students and working with the support of Character Lab to study whether the question board activity promotes curiosity. If you have your own idea for building curiosity or any kind of character strength or mindset in your students, please apply for this year’s Teacher Innovation Grant. We’re accepting applications through November 2, 2015.