How to Teach Curiosity

There are ways that I have found to boost and encourage curiosity in my classroom.  Some of my techniques you can try tomorrow; others rely on a basic classroom culture that takes a long time and careful planning to build.  I’ll touch on the easy ones first.

Easy Ways to Teach Curiosity


When you see it, name it.  The label is more important than praise.  Here’s some psychology for you that I learned from an actual psychologist: people adopt the labels that they hear applied to themselves.  As a person of authority, if you say to someone, “nice question!  More evidence that you’re a curious person!” (or whatever version of this feels natural to you), he will actually start to actively think of himself as curious.  If two persons of authority give him that label he will almost certainly assimilate the label into his self image.

It was hard for me to believe in the power of this technique at first.  How could such a small thing change the basic nature of another human?  An alternative example helped me believe: what if you called a student “stupid” or “bad at math” once a week or once a month?  Such a student would start to think of himself as stupid and bad at math.  For some reason that’s easier to believe in than positive labels, but why should it be?  I’ve been intentionally using specific, positive labels for about a year (and I mean I throw them out all the time) and the results are tangible.

It’s mind control and it’s manipulative, but… whatever.  I say go for it. Please only do it if it’s true.  Uncle Ben, right?  Please do not tell a student who asked a boring question that he is curious – you’ll water down your power and give the kid delusions about himself.  And specificity reigns here: please say “this shows that you’re curious because you asked about xyz even though it’s not obviously related,” not “that question shows curiosity” and certainly not “that was a curious question!” 😉  Try not to say “great question” without saying why it was a great question.  Evidence that makes your claim believable is vital to the success of this technique, but it doesn’t have to be a lot of evidence.

Games and Secrets

Make your review into a treasure hunt that takes you around the building or the room.  Tell a story without telling the ending.  Make a show of explaining a theorem or puzzle quietly to one student or a group of students and then audibly say “don’t tell anyone else.”  This is more incitement of curiosity than teaching of curiosity, but it can complement your other techniques well.

Harder Ways to Teach Curiosity


This is also psychology: people do what they see other people doing.  If you can spare a few minutes of your lesson to be interested in a tangential question in a way that includes the students, you can show that curiosity is a norm in your class.  This is hard because not every class period offers up an interesting side-note, and even if it does, you have to be careful not to interfere with your plan so much that learning is affected too much.  Before and after class are a good time to try to be interested in what your students are up to and what they’re learning that interests them.  Even your most bored student has something that they’re learning at the moment (bike tricks, knitting, texting, a videogame).  Hopefully it’s not something totally passive.

Finding Interesting Problems

I’m sorry for even including this.  It’s really hard.  Check out Dan Meyer’s WCYDWT, Shawn Cornally’s “How I Teach Calculus: a Comedy,” Kate Nowak’s and Sam Shah’s whole blogs, etc.

Make Students Responsible for Their Own Learning

Shawn Cornally writes, “I then have them construct a grant out of their group’s best/most interest­ing question.”  Students who are responsible for choosing an idea based on how interesting it is must evaluate how interesting ideas are.  This is the beginning of curiosity.  Students who are responsible for writing about an interesting idea in an interesting way must become interested in the idea and find ways to study it.  This is full-fledged curiosity in a way that “Complete items 1-4” will never teach.  I achieve this effect in my classes by involving students in their own assessment, which is a little bit easier than involving them so deeply in the curriculum itself (but also less effective, I’m sure).  However you do it, increasing responsibility will also teach independence and curiosity.

I mean, what is curiosity besides a feeling of confident independence?

2 thoughts on “How to Teach Curiosity”

  1. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciated this post and your other “How to teach [value]” posts. Thank you. I didn’t comment earlier because I didn’t have anything to add.

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