Children are Curious; Students are not

“Intellectual curiosity becomes a casualty of the education and status wars.”

Joshua Eyler. How Humans Learn. 2018

I mentioned psychologist Susan Engel in an earlier post. As recounted in Joshua Eyler’s How Humans Learn, Engel documents a drop-off in curiosity between kindergarten and fifth grade. Eyler points to other research that corroborates an age-related decrease in the pursuit of novel information.

While some of the decline in curiosity is likely natural, a portion of it may be attributed to school itself. In a tragic irony, it appears that the very institution responsible for imparting new knowledge depletes its pupils’ hunger for that knowledge.

Students, preoccupied by scholastic hurdles and abetted by canny or cynical parents, get wise to the learning industrial complex. They begin to avoid any authentic challenges that would impede the achievement of grades.

“Intellectual curiosity”, therefore, “becomes a casualty of the education and status wars” (Eyler, 2018).

He then commences a discussion of pedagogical methods that can reinforce curiosity instead of reducing it, namely inquiry- and discussion-based.

Inquiry-based pedagogy encourages learners to take responsibility by putting them at the center of the learning process.

Inquiry-based teachers use open-ended questions to spur investigation into authentic challenges (Coffman, 2017). Inquiry is guided, not directed. That means students enjoy a degree of autonomy as they pursue answers of real-world import. Ideally then, they begin to cultivate self-regulated learning as a habit of mind.

Wiggins and McTighe, in Understanding by Design, promote building courses with overarching learning objectives and “essential questions”, those that hew to the fundamental essence of the thing under investigation.

Robin Paige (Eyler’s colleague at Rice University), in contrast to Wiggins and McTighe’s multiple questions, proposes a “metaquestion”: one question around which course activities will revolve.

A key feature of inquiry-based approaches is learning to learn rather than simply learning the content, making it well suited to TWP.

Discussion-based pedagogy is a time-honored method going back at least to Socrates. Brookfield and Preskill say discussion has manifold benefits. It affirms the students’ role in the learning process and also encourages exploration of a diverse set of perspectives. That diversity, one hopes, fosters one of our habits of mind: integrated perspective.

As well worn as is it, discussion as a teaching tool can fail as well as succeed. According to Howard, a key to successful discussion is setting expectations. Classrooms are social settings in which norms are continually under negotiation and revision, so the instructor should explicitly set the expectation that all students should participate in discussion. The syllabus, then, should explain how discussion is tied to the learning objectives of the course. An accountability mechanism, such as a participation grade, is also useful.

Likewise, Lang suggests introducing discussion early and reinforcing it often. If students become accustomed to lectures, it will be an uphill battle if you suddenly throw in discussion during week four.

The instructor can spark conversation by asking questions. Fact-based questions can kick things off, but should be used sparingly. Open-ended questions invite more thoughtful, well, discussion.

Interestingly, this recommended progression, from a few fact-based questions to more open-ended ones, parallels Chouinard’s observations of young children. Pre-school-aged kids inquire into facts first, then seek explanatory (“why”) answers. Modeling college instruction on patterns of early childhood may rekindle some of that lost curiosity.

These two pedagogical styles—inquiry-based and discussion-based—are not mutually exclusive. In the words of Susan Engel, “by asking questions I don’t have a set answer to, I am modeling genuine inquiry and sharing my own curiosity.” Inquiry and discussion, in other words, overlap.

Both hinge on asking the right questions. To that end, Rothstein and Santana devised a Question Formulation Technique (QFT). The QFT is a six-stage process that spurs students to create their own questions.

  1. Design a question focus.
  2. Produce questions.
  3. Work with closed-ended and open-ended questions.
  4. Prioritize questions.
  5. Plan next steps.
  6. Reflect.

The QFT offers an effective tool for getting the most out of both discussion and inquiry. As Eyler states, it combines “authentic practice” with “metacognitive reflection”, motivating students not just to investigate the content, but to gain insights and self-awareness they can transfer to other classes and challenges.

Next time, I hope to explore the QFT in depth, talk about how it relates to the goals of TWP, and see if it helps make students curious again.

The Question Formulation Technique in practice.


Brookfield, S., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a way of teaching : Tools and techniques for democratic classrooms (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Coffman, T. (2017). Inquiry-based learning: Designing instruction to promote higher level thinking (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Engel, S. (2011). Children’s need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 625-645.

Lang, J. (2008). On course : A week-by-week guide to your first semester of college teaching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (2008).

Rothstein, D., Santana, L., & Puriefoy, W. (2017). Make just one change : Teach students to ask their own questions (7th printing ed.). Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard Education Press.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.) [Expanded 2nd ed.]. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for writing this, Mike. One of the areas that I have always struggled with regarding Understanding by Design is the idea of “essential questions.” Essential to whom? My struggle with this reminds me of a time when a leading game studies scholar critiqued Farmville saying the essential game mechanic is clicking things. I knew several people for whom clicking things was not the point of the game. The point was to build an aesthetically pleasing online environment. For the game studies scholar that part of Farmville was not important. But the people who were really into the game loved that aspect of it. This proved to me that “essential” is a matter of perspective. So I love the idea of students coming up with questions rather than (or maybe in additions to) having the essential ones given to them.

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