During my first year of teaching, I had the misfortune of overhearing one of my students utter a phrase that every teacher dreads: “Mr. Hammill’s class is so boring!”

I was crushed. I was new to the teaching and in one short sentence, a 13-year shook my confidence to the core. Swallowing my pride, I approached my mentor and shared with her the secondhand feedback. My mentor told me something I’ve never forgotten: “Well, better you know this now. You need to overhaul your lessons and rebuild them with an eye to engaging students and igniting their natural curiosity.”

With that advice, I began what has become my life’s work: to help each educator unlock student curiosity through engaging digital lessons. Through every stage in my career—as a teacher, instructional designer, standards developer, state leader in curriculum and professional learning, and now as the Senior Instructional Design Manager at Discovery Education—I’ve worked to help educators spark student curiosity in ways that will make their lessons both memorable and engaging. Specifically, I seek to accomplish this by helping educators prioritize inquiry, and with it, build a culture of questioning. The shift from memorizing a list of names, dates, and facts to using historical thinking skills to investigate sources and narratives about the past has led to more educators building learning outcomes based on varying levels of inquiry.

But building this culture and skillset means more than putting an essential question on the board each day or simply asking students at the end of class if there are any questions. In fact, it means being intentional about the level of scaffolding for inquiry and framing understanding as an ongoing and evolving process. It should be noted that asking questions can also be a vulnerable space for students, many of whom may be reluctant to participate in that way.

So, how can educators build authentic opportunities for inquiry into their lessons and classroom culture and ignite student curiosity? Here are a few ideas to get you started!

Use The Question Formulation Technique. Developed by the Right Question Institute, the Question Formulation Technique, or QFT, is a structured method for students to generate and improve their own questions. It positions complex types of divergent, convergent, and metacognitive thinking into a focused, simple, and accessible technique.

The QFT is an excellent exercise to use at different points in your lesson or unit depending on your goal. Students could be introduced to a primary or secondary source to kick off a lesson with student generated questions, or they use the QFT on a current topic to generate their own open and closed ended questions. Regardless of where it is used, the QFT provides students with a new way of thinking and changes the relationship students have with questions and finding answers.

Integrate Visible Thinking Routines into Instruction. Project Zero from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education provides a toolbox of thinking routines that fit perfectly with inquiry-based learning. Project Zero defines a visible thinking routine as a set of questions or a brief sequence of steps used to scaffold and support student thinking. These routines range from short, inquiry-driven questions to more complex exercises designed to deepen student's thinking about a topic, event, object, or perspective. These routines require very little prep and encourage students to explore ideas or topics in new ways, making them a perfect fit for educators who are seeking to be intentional about scaffolding student thinking. Examples include routines like “Imagine If” that helps students see a topic in a new way, or “Parts, Perspectives, Me” that helps explore complex ideas and students' own connections to the topic.

Begin with Sources. Starting the class with sources or texts provides an intentional space for divergent thinking and opportunities to wonder, even before front-loading context and background knowledge. When used appropriately, these resources become building blocks for inquiry. For social studies, these usually mean primary or secondary sources that help draw out important concepts, facts, and ideas. The intentional use of sources such as those found in Discovery Education Experience — videos, primary source documents letters, images, quotes, songs, and more — can be a great way to help students ask questions in place of thinking solely about answers. For example, using these resources as question starters can build curiosity, but they also open the possibility of students developing a critical consciousness about the world around them, or thinking differently about a traditional narrative or source of truth.

Keep the Questions Visible. Where we spend our time reflects our values. Being intentional about creating time and space for questions matters for students. Keeping questions visible means students receive consistent prompts and reminders about the importance of curiosity. In addition to creating time and resources for questioning, it is equally valuable for students to revisit them. One way to do this is to create space in your classroom where students can post, revise, or answer their own questions. By creating this space, students see that their questions are prioritized in the learning experiences, and they become an active participant in place of simply receiving the information. Space for questions could include areas around the physical space in your room, online where students share information, or in their notebook. Having students answer or revise their questions as they learn more also helps reinforce the message that our interpretation of the past is always changing.

Integrate High-Interest and Highly Relevant Content into Instruction. Every teacher has a lesson or unit that regularly turns out to be a challenge, either by complexity of content, student interest, or both. Another strategy for embedding an intentional curiosity into your classroom is to plan for the opportunities during that confounding unit. To relieve some of the struggle, begin by determining key learning outcomes. Plan activities or learning progressions that lean heavily into student driven questions using strategies listed above, or ones you already have in your toolbox. Leaning into students' curiosity might mean finding conceptual links to highly-relevant, present day news stories, or finding interesting images, stories, or artifacts that could serve as evidence for students to investigate. This helps move from a framework of “covering” content to a model of “uncovering” the important information and thematic ideas found within the unit of study.

These are just a few ways educators can build authentic opportunities for inquiry into their lessons and classroom culture and ignite student curiosity. Now, more than ever, it is important we build dynamic, engaging learning experiences for all students, and building cultures of inquiry in all classrooms is a great way to start!

About the author

Drew Hammill is a Senior Instructional Design Manager at Discovery Education. Drew applies his more than 13 years of educational experience—spanning teaching, instructional design, standards development, and state leadership in curriculum and professional development. He is the recipient of several teaching awards and has a master’s degree in school leadership.