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Curriculum Opinion

The Importance of Curiosity and Questions in 21st-Century Learning

By Andrew P. Minigan — May 24, 2017 8 min read
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Editor’s Note: Today, Andrew P. Minigan, Education Project and Research Coordinator, The Right Question Institute, shares why he thinks the 4 Cs are missing a critical 5th C: Curiosity and Questioning.

In their Framework for 21st Century Learning, P21 recognizes the importance of teachers developing their students’ learning and innovation skills. These skills, which are often referred to as “the 4 Cs,” stand for creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. The 4 Cs capture the skills students should hone during their formal education to complement and drive knowledge acquisition and content mastery. Yet, there is an additional C that may be just as fundamental for learning and innovation: curiosity and question formulation.

Asking questions is not simply a means to gather information. Rather, by asking questions, students can identify their own knowledge gaps and think critically about what they are learning, assess information from individuals and other sources of information, think creatively and divergently, and work constructively with others. Curiosity and the skill of formulating questions supports the 4 Cs while also tapping into a skill that is not highlighted in the Framework for 21st Century Learning.

Curiosity and Question Formulation

It seems that fostering student curiosity can have a direct impact on student engagement, interest, and assist students in driving their learning. For instance, neuroscientists from the University of California at Davis found that high curiosity may improve individual’s memory for information they acquire, and they suggest “stimulating curiosity ahead of knowledge acquisition could enhance learning success.” And a meta-analysis of over 200 studies found that curiosity influences academic achievement and curiosity with conscientiousness has as much of an impact on achievement as intelligence.

If student curiosity is so beneficial to learning then why has it been so often overlooked in the classroom? In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger mentions that product-driven schools are byproducts of the industrial age, but the modern-day entrepreneurial work environment necessitates a question-asking model of education.

There is a lot expected of classroom teachers as they juggle curricula and evolving standards, all while attempting to address the individual needs of their students. One way to pivot to a curiosity-infused learning environment is by deliberately teaching students how to formulate questions with simple strategies that support the work educators are already doing.

Teaching students how to ask and use their own questions can have a significant positive impact on students’ curiosity according to initial research findings from Boston University education researcher Shelby Clark. Students’ questions engage them in their own learning, can be useful for addressing teaching and learning objectives, and help students develop a skill that lends itself to innovation and original thinking.

Creativity

In a piece for American Psychologist, Todd Kashdan and Frank Fincham suggest that “high curiosity is necessary, though not sufficient, for creativity.” They posit that curiosity may be a link between an individual’s experiences and an individual’s creativity skills. Thinking in questions can help students make meaningful connections between what they are learning in the classroom with their interests. Producing questions allows students to make these connections in an unlimited amount of ways and to think divergently—in many different directions.

Developing divergent thinking skills is essential for sparking creativity and is especially beneficial when followed sequentially by convergent thinking. The Question Formulation Technique (QFT), for example, is a step-by-step process that helps students ask as many questions as they can and then transitions into students prioritizing their questions according to the educator’s instructions. This process honors the creativity and ingenuity of students while having them carefully consider which of their questions will be most relevant as the lesson progresses.

Allowing students to be curious can allow creativity to flow. As author Erik Wahl writes, “In our early years, you and I consistently embodied the key traits that drive constant creativity. Curiosity ruled our senses. Enthusiasm ignited our actions. We did not fear what we did not know—instead we thrived on the process of discovery.” Harnessing student curiosity can fuel productive divergent thinking while enhancing creative and innovative thinking. One student at Mt. San Antonio College just outside of Los Angeles learned the QFT in Professor Sun Ezzell’s class. The student realized that they were not only able to, “come up with questions very quickly” but also that their, “thinking and creativity is improving and growing” as a result.

Critical Thinking

Students can use questions to challenge their own assumptions and other students’ assumptions, consider what they know and what they do not know, and assess sources and information they are consuming. P21 highlights the importance of asking questions in their work on critical thinking and they believe that to solve problems students should be able to “identify and ask significant questions that clarify various points of view and lead to better solutions.”

Students who learn to ask better questions are able to recognize the importance of the process of asking questions for problem solving. An 11th grader in the Los Angeles Unified School District reflected that “questions can help focus on a problem and think of solutions.” Similarly, an undergraduate student at Brandeis University found that "[asking questions] helped me think more critically and deeply about the topics presented to us and about how to utilize different ideas to think about each one.” Not only do students think differently when they begin to ask questions, they also recognize the process of asking questions as the mechanism that allows them to think and problem solve.

Communication

Being able to ask questions is also an effective way to target and gather information from other individuals. Curiosity can lead students to consider what they do not know or are still wondering about, and questions are a way to communicate this lack of knowledge to target and gather information from others who may have the answer. Listening to other individuals’ questions can help one consider their perspective and learn from their thoughts. When students carefully listen to what their peers are curious about, it can stimulate their own curiosity and thinking.

An eighth grader at Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Austin, Texas, captured the importance of articulating one’s own questions and hearing other students’ questions. The eighth grader said that by generating questions with other students, “it helps me by getting me to think about questions on my own. Also, it gets my mind in motion to think about the questions other people make.”

A kindergartner from Kentucky that participated in a question-asking activity with peers shared that “sometimes some stuff surprises me, like, about the questions. They surprise me that I haven’t thought of ... [what] someone else thought of that I didn’t know.” Carving out space for students to collaboratively ask questions contributes to more equitable classrooms where all students can play an active role in their education and appreciate that their peers have interesting questions to ask as well.

Collaboration

When students produce questions collaboratively, they become co-constructors in their inquiries. One student may shed light on an idea or concept through their questions that then sparks the thinking of another student, leading down interesting paths for learning.

Dr. Adyemi Stembridge, an educator known for his work in the field of equity and student engagement, recently recalled an instance where students in a 4th grade classroom in Cherry Creek School District in Colorado were grappling with a classroom discussion. One student had a suggestion for how to tackle this—use the Question Formulation Technique. After this suggestion, Dr. Stembridge asked the student why a QFT might help. The student quickly responded, “Because I have a lot of questions in my head and I’m sure a lot of us do.”

Through asking questions together, students gain new insight into their own thinking and the thinking of others and they learn to value the inquiry process. They build off one another’s questions to create new questions. Students can work together to reach a consensus on which questions they will seek answers to or explore further and as a team they can establish next steps for their inquiry.

Curiosity in the Age of Information

In the 21st century, there is an urgent need for students to be able craft their own questions, strategize on their inquiry, and harness their curiosity to drive their own learning. As Picasso once famously quipped, “computers are useless; they can only give you answers.” With the development of new technologies, there is no shortage of information to be found through a simple Google search.

This has placed a newfound value on the ability to think nimbly and to use curiosity to drive innovation by asking new questions that have yet to be explored. As journalist and author Clive Thompson put it, “How should you respond when you get powerful new tools for finding answers? Think of harder questions.” Curiosity and learning to ask better questions is fundamental to the development of the 5 Cs, for learning, and for life.

Connect with Andrew, RQI, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image credit: The Holler. Caption, “Sheila Varney’s kindergarten students at Southside Elementary School in Belfry, Kentucky eagerly asking questions during the Question Formulation Technique.”

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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