What makes a good scientist? I asked this question of more than 20 biomedical researchers at the Van Andel Institute and you might be surprised by the answer. Scientific knowledge rated low on the list, far below characteristics such as critical thinking, collaboration, and perseverance. And guess what the number one characteristic the scientists cited as necessary to be good at their job — curiosity. Curiosity! Something we all have innately and something our students have in spades!
Still, curiosity alone is not enough to turn a student into a master scientist. A curious mindset needs to be cultivated, challenged, and refined by a learning environment. In some ways it’s like gardening. Curiosity is the soil in which ideas can take root and grow. A teacher’s job is to create a setting where this can occur while also removing any distractions (aka weeds).
Asking the Right Questions
But how do we challenge students to foster their curiosity in a way that both informs and inspires? And how do we refine their growth mindset while still giving them a sense of choice and discovery in their lessons? For educators pondering these questions, consider giving these four strategies a try:
- Another Way: When some students seem to provide an answer or explanation more quickly than others, routinely ask those fast finishers to show you “another way.” What’s another way you can get that answer? What’s another explanation for the result? What’s another way to explain what happened? Challenge them to think of new ideas that are even BETTER than their first; this is a great way to build growth mindsets!
- Curiosity Journal: Encourage students to think about questions they have during their day. At the beginning of class, give them 2-3 minutes to record their questions from the previous day. Periodically, ask students to share their most interesting questions. If you have time at the end of the year, have students choose a question from their journal to investigate.
- Tinker Time: Allow students some time to tinker with materials or ideas just for the fun of it. They can create a variety of objects out of the same materials. They can expand on ideas in a variety of ways and directions. During sharing time, encourage students to share the results of their tinkering with descriptive and precise language. Tinker Time outside of an investigation promotes risk-taking and student curiosity.
- Question Web: Help students create investigation questions using a Question Web. Write a guiding question in the center of the web. This should be a broad question such as “Why do plants grow?” Then ask students what they are curious about to add more questions to the chart (e.g., “Does it matter how often I water them?”). Keep narrowing down questions until you get a question that is testable.
Inspiring and Inquisitive
To nurture curiosity in our budding scientists, we need to get them asking lots of questions. And not just questions we know the answers to, but big, hairy questions that we have no clue about! Think about it, those scientists I queried are not going to work every day to answer questions they already know the answer to. They are grappling with questions that don’t have an answer, at least not yet. So, let’s encourage our students to ask big questions. Get them comfortable with the idea of not knowing an answer, letting a question marinate in their minds, spurring new questions.