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Building Curious Minds

According to some research that I came across recently, the average 5 year old asks 274 in the course of a day.

This has made me curious and want to know a bit more:

  • Who is being asked these questions?
  • Are these questions being asked of other five year olds?
  • How do we measure the questions five year olds ask themselves?
  • What are five years olds asking questions about?
  • What kinds of questions are they asking?
  • What kinds of experiences stimulate curiosity?
  • Does the number of questions go up of down once the five year old is at school?

I have just spent two fascinating days with school leaders and teachers from two partner primary and secondary schools, going into lessons and gathering information about the nature of learning across the phases of education. The discussions we have had in lessons have been stimulating and there has been some genuine learning for all of us. We seemed to come to back to one issue quite frequently: how can we maintain the avid curiosity of the very young so that 16 year olds are asking themselves and others more than 274 questions a day of a kind that have become even more searching and forensic with age?

It is worth considering what we mean by curiosity – a strong desire to know or learn something – and what stimulates our curiosity. Like the women in this clip –

I am filled with a sense of wonder about the winter phenomenon of starling murmurations. My wonderment is twofold: in awe at this remarkable event but complemented by a range of different questions to help me understand what is going on:

  • How many starlings make up a flock?
  • When do they do this?
  • Where can I go to see this for myself?
  • What ‘s the purpose of this event?
  • How come they don’t collide with each other?
  • What would happen if you flew through this cloud of starlings?
  • Why is it that starling numbers have plummeted in the last decades?

In our information rich age, I can probably get answers to my questions quite quickly but that’s just the start; armed with some answers, I should be asking myself whether my data source is reliable and what further questions I am asking about my emerging knowledge and understanding.

Stimulating young people’s curiosity is central to our job as teachers but that isn’t enough. We need to ensure that we expose them to a wide range of questioning habits that enable them to progress as questioners as they grow older. In their book Activating and Engaging Habits of Mind, Costa and Kallick identify 27 different kind of questions that we might reasonably expect young people to be in the habit of using through their experience of school. In simple terms, these can be classified into Data-gathering questions, Processing questions and Elaborating and Applying Questions*. You might like to look at my questions above and classify them accordingly and then consider the kinds of questions that you provoke your learners to ask of themselves and others and of the world in which they live.

If you do one thing…make asking questions a focus in every lesson but don’t just do this by telling students to ask questions. This will lead to a stony silence. Provide experiences that pique their curiosity through visual and aural stimuli.

Try this: Compile a pack of 52 cards each one having a name or object on it – make sure each card has an ambiguous word on it – Cavity, Uncertainty, Homer, Bermuda Triangle, Compost – turn over a card and ask the class to work out What’s on my card? Initial questions will be random – answer them straight in ways that keep them curious and a little confused. Now say: Talk to your partner: what do you know…what do you need to know? The next tranche of questions will be more strategic. Repeat this process, giving enough clues to maintain curiosity but ensure that they have that satisfying, penny-dropping moment of working it out for themselves. Be prepared to leave the problem unsolved and come back to it later.

According to research…

  • The number of questions asked by the average 5 year old drops by 90% by the end of her/his first term at school…
  • The UK population of starlings has fallen by 66% since the 1970s


* For more detail, see our At a Glance card on Questioning.

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