Building curiosity in the primary classroom

  • Building curiosity in the primary classroom

When we’re no longer curious about the world around us, we’ve lost our desire to learn. So keep the questions coming with these mysteries and investigations from Andy Griffith and Mark Burns...

As human beings, we are naturally curious creatures. If we can tap into this innate tendency and capture the imagination of our students, then we can maximise their interest and engagement.

One Y5 teacher, Natalie, started a numeracy lesson by informing her class that a plate of donuts had been stolen from the headteacher’s office. The students were shocked when they were told that the thief had to be one of the teachers. They were incredibly curious about who it could be. To solve the mystery they had to crack the secret code the thief had left behind.

The teacher commented afterwards that using curiosity had dramatically raised engagement levels. There are many advantages to building curiosity in the classroom, such as:

  • Triggering motivation through curiosity gets students asking questions. Most students ask too few questions. When they do ask questions they instantly become more engaged.
  • Curiosity keeps students on their toes. The teacher who uses it is being creative and building the students’ creativity too.
  • Stimulating curiosity, which may be dormant in a student or teacher, is an essential habit of mind to develop. Students may take their new-found curiosity into other aspects of their lives. As an old Chinese proverb says: ‘the quality of your life depends upon the quality of your questions’.
  • The following ideas present a few way to pique children’s curiosity, most of which could be turned to any lesson, or easily adapted and extended.

1. Use props

Bringing in interesting objects and resources to the lesson is a great way to arouse curiosity. One teacher we worked with brought in some chicks while she was reading the story of Chicken Licken to her pupils. Along with her teaching assistants, she invited pupils into a circle on the carpet and got each child to stroke the chicks and ask questions. The children were already engaged, but now they were enraptured. We often encourage teachers to use props to create more novelty in lessons. Other examples include:

A science teacher gave her students an interesting challenge on the topic of reproduction. Each group was allocated a window pane, some plasticine and the use of a digital camera. Using resources such as notes and a textbook they had to make a silent movie which showed how a sperm fertilises an egg. Each group presented their movie later in the lesson. Not only that, the class voted for the best movie and the winning group received an Oscar for best film.

Year 4 students walked into the class to see a battered old suitcase in the middle of the floor. First they had to speculate what was in the case and then they got the chance to examine the contents. The suitcase was borrowed from the local museum. To add gravitas to the situation the teacher made the students wear white gloves before they examined the contents which included a gas mask, ration book and so on. The purpose of the lesson was to write a story through the eyes of a wartime evacuee.

To explore the topic of probability, a Y5 class was divided into small groups then given 12 toy cars and two dice.

After drawing a race track of 10 spaces on the floor, students then numbered each car from 1 through to 12. Students were asked to speculate which cars were most likely to be winners. Students then threw the dice. How many spaces each car moved forward depended on the combined number rolled by the dice. For example, if the dice rolled 2 and 4, adding up to six, car number 6 was moved forward one space. The winner was the first car to reach the tenth space. One would expect car number 7 to win due to the law of probability: seven is the most likely aggregate number to appear when two dice are rolled together. However, not all number 7s won, which threw up some interesting questions about the differences between probability and chance.

2. Ask what happened next?

When students are hypothesising and speculating they are working at high levels of thinking. Stopping a story, a video or an experiment to ask students what they think might happen next is another way to get increased curiosity. A science teacher used her own personal photos of the Buncefield oil depot explosion in 2005 as seen from her house. She asked students to speculate on what might have caused this plume of smoke. The students then went on to investigate the chemistry behind the explosion.

3. Create mystery

When a Y4 class walked into their classroom their teacher, Steve Jones, seemed perturbed. Someone had written graffiti all over the back wall of his classroom! It was a class mystery. Students were used to solving mysteries. They each then went to their drawer and got out their detective badges. It was time for the investigation to begin.

Students devised a plan, interviewed suspects played by other teachers and by a process of elimination worked out who the culprit was. Mr Jones’s class clearly love a mystery and have become adept at not just solving them but using them to develop their writing skills. In this case, their task was to write about the case for the local newspaper. For each piece of writing students tried to improve on their previous best work by using better verbs, adjectives, connectives and so on.

Pie Corbett