Engage Students by Cultivating Their Curiosity

Leverage inquiry learning to engage students during face-to-face, remote, or hybrid learning.

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Engaging our students in learning is key to their learning success, and it is something we continually strive to do in our classrooms. During this time of remote learning, engaging our students can be more challenging than ever since many of the teacher-centered strategies that worked in the traditional classroom (like using our teacher presence) are not highly effective during remote learning. For remote learning, engagement hinges more on student-centered strategies that empower our students. An effective and empowering student-centered learning strategy that works well in both remote and traditional environments is inquiry learning. By leveraging the inquiry process, we can design learning that cultivates our students’ curiosity, where they are intrinsically motivated to want to engage in the learning.

Why should teachers cultivate students’ curiosity?

Curiosity engages students.

Hanover Research’s Virtual Student Engagement Toolkit lists three types of learner engagement: cognitive, behavioral, and affective. Because students succeed when they are interested, stay on task, and feel positive about the learning, Hanover Research suggests that one action step in increasing student engagement is to:  “Consider students’ curiosity and intellectual interest in course content and academic activities (p. 4).”

Student engagement represents the sum total of their investment in learning, commitment to academic success, ongoing curiosity, expressive creativity, and development of positive relationships with others.

Hanover Research

Students are inherently curious.

Preschoolers can overwhelm adults with steady streams of “why” questions. They ask these questions because it effectively helps them learn about and understand the world around them. Sadly, research from Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity, found that asking questions peaks at age five with approximately 107 questions per hour. After that, asking questions declines sharply to only two to five questions asked every two hours, with students rarely asking questions by ages 10 and 11. Because students start school at age five, some wonder if the decline is due to education’s focus on students knowing the right answer rather than on cultivating their innate curiosity to learn the answers.

What does it mean to learn? Most of us eventually realize that genuine learning is less about delivering the right answers and more about asking the right questions. In an age of automation, questioning is a uniquely human skill, one we should foster in school and in life.

Daniel H. Pink

Studies affirm curiosity leads to better learning.

Teaching our students how to refine and develop their questioning skills is a highly effective learning strategy, and the research supports this practice.

Promoting curiosity in children, especially those from environments of economic disadvantage, may be an important, under-recognized way to address the achievement gap.

Prachi Shah

  • According to a 2020 research study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, students who generate their own questions about a topic not only scored on average 14 points higher on tests but also had better retention and, therefore, transfer of their learning. The researchers believe this is because “generating questions stimulates a deeper elaboration of the learning material and a deeper processing.”

The skills developed by fostering curiosity are in high demand.

One of our hopes for students is that they not only gain content-specific knowledge from us but that they also gain the skills necessary to become lifelong learners, including problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, creativity, and collaboration. We also want them to have strong social and emotional skills, such as empathy, adaptability, resilience, honesty, self-awareness, self-management, and decision-making. These are competencies that students can develop by engaging in the inquiry process. By helping them develop these skills, we set our students up for success both personally and professionally, as these are the same proficiencies that are in high demand for today’s workforce and are projected to grow in demand even more in the future. Several studies call attention to the benefits and rationale for developing competencies in these areas.

  • According to a whitepaper report from Microsoft and McKinsey & Company’s Education Practice, The class of 2030 and life-ready learning: The technology imperative, automation will replace up to 50% of existing jobs. “The fastest growing occupations will require higher level cognitive skills in areas such as problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity, and 30 to 40 percent of jobs will require explicit social-emotional skills.”

The students we surveyed were clear: they want to develop the skills to navigate their own learning—to explore and make choices that unlock their curiosity and potential. And they want teachers who know and understand them as individuals to help guide them on their educational journey.

Microsoft and McKinsey & Company’s Education Practice

  • According to the Harvard Business Review article “Curiosity Is as Important as Intelligence,” one’s curiosity quotient along with emotional quotient can “enhance our ability to manage complexity,” which is increasingly needed during this time of innovation in our rapidly changing world.

 I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.

Albert Einstein

  • In the Forbes article “As the Workforce Transforms, Creativity Must Take Priority,” Cameron Conaway suggests that cultivating curiosity is one way that we can “build the foundation for sustainable creative practice.”
    • The World Economic Forum’s The Future of Jobs Report 2018 lists creativity, initiative, flexibility, complex problem-solving, and emotional intelligence as skills that will continue to increase in demand.
    • LinkedIn’s analysis of candidate profiles found creativity as the top soft skill listed for those getting hired most quickly.

 Organizations everywhere need people who can innovate and conceive fresh ideas and solutions.


Fostering curiosity supports equity.

Another area of great concern during remote learning is equity. How can we not only ensure equity of resources, such as technology, but also equity in the opportunity to learn? In the Education Week article, “We Learn by Doing: What Educators Get Wrong About Bloom’s Taxonomy,” Ron Berger highlights how Bloom’s Taxonomy was never intended to be seen as a ladder, where lower-order thinking skills must be achieved before higher-order thinking skills, like analysis and creativity, can be applied. If we use it as a ladder, we deny some students who may struggle with remembering from gaining those highly desirable workforce skills that result from engaging in the higher-order thinking skills that are developed when engaged in inquiry projects. This then “contributes to a two-tiered educational system in which some students, often those from more affluent families, are prepared to be thinkers and leaders, while others are prepared narrowly for tests of basic skills through memorization.”

When students are engaged in applying knowledge to building things of beauty and value as part of their learning, it does more than deepen understanding; it also cultivates student motivation and agency and pride in craftsmanship.

Ron Berger

Fostering curiosity supports social and emotional learning.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), some ways in which schools can integrate SEL into instructional practices are by having students contribute to their learning, collaborate in their learning, and be problem-solvers and decision-makers. All of these practices can be supported via inquiry learning.

University of Minnesota Medical School professor Anne Gearity, Ph.D., works with schools and counseling students and is seeing firsthand the impact that remote learning is having on mental health. In her interview with KARE, she noted that here mantra is: “Learning makes you feel better.”  She also shared, “I wish teachers could give assignments that are more enriching or give students permission to follow an interest and go deep into the interest…”

How can teachers cultivate students’ curiosity?

If wonder and curiosity are important, then how can we cultivate students’ innate curiosity? In short, we can do this by sparking their interest or passion about the topic that they are learning, by teaching them how to effectively ask questions, and by empowering them to discover the answers to their questions. In the process of questioning, researching, investigating, exploring, discovering, and creatively sharing the answers to their wonderings, students will develop the knowledge and skills needed for lifelong success. In the process, we also create a more engaging, student-centered learning environment, where students are empowered and develop their self-agency and self-efficacy.

Knowing the answers will help you in school. Knowing how to question will help you in life.

Warren Berger

In science, you might start an inquiry project by exposing students to a natural phenomenon, and then have them conduct research to determine why and how it happened. In math class, students could be given the answer and then challenged to backwards engineer the process of finding that solution. In a history class, students could ask questions and seek answers to how historical events impact current events. English students could research a time period to determine how historical events impacted an author’s writing. In nearly any class, students can be given a real-world problem to solve, and students can work together to find a solution. For the learning to have relevance and be as authentic as possible, the inquiry process should include reflection and communicating their learning with others. Sharing their learning with an authentic audience is also an opportunity for them to develop their creativity skills.

What process can teachers use to engage students’ curiosity?

Many of us use a problem-solving model to help effectively and efficiently answer questions, make decisions, and solve problems. In engineering, they use the Engineering Design Process to solve problems; in the medical field, they use the OODA Loop method that originated in the military for combat operations to make decisions; and as teachers, we use instructional design models to design effective lessons. Inquiry is essentially another form of the problem-solving process.

To help guide your students through this inquiry process, we have developed the ANSWERS model. This process will help students think critically as they generate questions and search for answers. The model is flexible and can be used for quick inquiries that are part of a short lesson and also more complex and longer inquiry projects.

While it’s important to complete the steps in the process, it’s also important to recognize that the inquiry process is rarely linear. Students will find themselves weaving back and forth and between steps. For example, after they pose their question and start noting the possibilities, students may find themselves asking new questions, which leads them to consider new possibilities. It is important that they consider the end product, as well as their audience, as they plan and design how to share their findings. They will also need to review, reflect, and revise throughout the entire process. You may use and share this Searching for Answers: Inquiry Process poster to help guide students through these steps.

In this series of articles, we will dig more deeply into each step of the ANSWERS model and offer digital strategies, tools, and templates that you can use as you teach your students to learn via the inquiry process.