Helping Students Ask Better Questions by Creating a Culture of Inquiry

John Spencer
Nov 16, 2017 · 9 min read

Student inquiry is at the heart of student choice. When students are able to ask their own questions, they can chase their curiosity and tap into their own interests. They can build on their prior knowledge and build a bridge to new information that they are analyzing. But how do we actually do this?

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Students Should Chase Their Curiosity

I want classrooms to be bastions of creativity and wonder. I want to see students chasing their curiosity and researching answers. I love what happens when students solve problems that don’t have easy answers; when they become builders and engineers and authors and scientists and historians bent on finding out the truth. And yet, this doesn’t always happen in school. Often, we stick too tightly to curriculum maps and deadlines and students learn to value compliance above empowerment. And the result is a lack of natural curiosity.

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About a year ago, I talked to a teacher-librarian named Glenn Warren. We’ve had a couple of great Google Hangouts and I highly respect his ideas on information literacy. He described what happened to students at various grade levels when he first introduced to the Ask Tons of Questions face of design thinking. The kindergartners asked so many questions, they couldn’t write every question down. By fourth grade, they were asking 3–4 questions. By middle school, they wanted to know if their questions were the “right” questions. They’re really focused on compliance and not curiosity.

I find this tragic.

My friend George Couros describes it this way, “If students leave school less curious than when they have started we have failed them.”

In many respects, the system has failed our systems. But that’s why teachers are the ones who can turn things around.

How to Help Students Ask Better Questions

We want to see kids asking tons of questions. This is how students grow into creative, critical thinkers. In an inquiry-based framework, it all begins with student questions. But how do we actually make that happen? The answer lies in a culture of inquiry. This includes everything from the trust that teachers develop to the way they reduce fear to the lessons they develop to the strategies they use.

  1. Question everything. Make this your mantra! As long as a question is respectful, allow your students to question their world. This applies to analyzing mathematical processes, thinking through social issues, making sense out of a text or analyzing the natural world for cause and effect. Every lesson should include students asking questions to you, to one another or to themselves. You can even move beyond the classroom and encourage students to ask questions of the world through social media and personal interviews with experts in the field.

A Climate of Curiosity

This is not a comprehensive list. I’m sure there are many other ways to help students recover their natural curiosity. Sometimes it involves going out into nature. Sometimes they just need a Genius Hour, where they can pursue their passions. But ultimately, teachers can create an environment of curiosity, where students are excited about asking questions and discovering answers.

A Call to Action: Try a Wonder Day Project

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If you’re interested in starting an inquiry-based lesson with your students, check out the Wonder Day / Wonder Week Project. You can access it on my website. It includes lesson plans, the process, and slideshows.

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