Real talk: are your students truly filled with wonder & curiosity? Do you sometimes feel like you’re battling an onslaught of flashing lights and dopamine-drip screens, vying for your students’ attention? It can be frustrating to want students to open their eyes and take in the wonder of the non-screen world around them, and feel like they’d really just like their tablets or phones back ASAP!
If you’re like me, I want more for our students than a life of passively consuming content; I’d much prefer they be creators of content!
While it can be tough at times, you don’t need screens to inspire true wonder and curiosity in your students. What you will need is to set your intention to make it a focus — and a few practical tips in your back pocket to help you implement! I’ve got a list below of my personal top 5 ways to inspire students, plus a bonus!
As with everything else, practice makes permanent. If we want students to hold on to that beautiful gift of innate curiosity, we have to make it a priority to protect it, praise it, and make space for it in our classrooms.
The great news is, there are several small shifts we can make that produce outsized results!
Inspire Wonder & Curiosity Tip 1:
This one is first because it’s the easiest to implement, but it sure packs a punch! If you’ve been asking, “Does anyone have any questions?” during your lessons, you’re not alone! Try changing your wording to, “What questions do you have?” It’s a simple shift, but it drives an expectation that it’s not only OK to have questions; one should have questions.
Asking questions is what curious people do. Think of every four-year-old you ever met — question after question after question! And, eventually, most of us stop asking why. We want to bring questions back, so encourage a climate of questions with your students in all subject areas!
If it doesn’t come naturally to your students, you might have to be the one to start things off by asking your own questions aloud.
If students’ “wonder” muscles need a little extra exercise, you might even implement the occasional 3-minute wonder quick write. Choose any object in the room, and ask students to journal as many questions as they can generate in 2-3 minutes. Simply ask, “What questions do you have about this television, wooden stool, desk, etc.?”
With practice, the questions will come easier and become more interesting. Give students time to share out some of their questions with the class, not necessarily seeking answers from their peers, but just to share where their minds went, which can inspire others to expand their own thinking. A great bonus for you is that the questions they come up with can give you great insight into who your students really are, how their minds work, and what makes them tick.
Inspire Wonder & Curiosity Tip 2:
Be the Change You Want to See
I know this sounds a bit like the famous Gandhi quote, which I recently learned isn’t exactly what he said (see below) … I hate when that happens! But don’t worry, the gist is the same!
We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” ~ Gandhi
So, how can you be the change? First, model your own curiosity by asking your own questions aloud. You’ll also want to model what comes after one wonders (digging for answers). Now, I know this can lead you off on a tangent. Sometimes you’ll want to ride that wave, but other times, you’ll need to stay the course on what you’re doing. You can’t go riding every wave, at least not at the drop of a hat!
What does this practically look like in the classroom? First of all, as much as you can, be in the moment and be flexible. When an unplanned teachable moment occurs, sometimes you should chuck your original plan and just go with it. When students are excited about something, and it’s possible to follow that rabbit hole, do it. The shorter the time between students getting curious and getting to satisfy that curiosity, the better. Of course, it’s not always possible to stop what you’re doing right away.
I recommend creating a Wonder Wall bulletin board. When you or students wonder about something, record it on a sticky note or scrap paper, and put it on the wall. Use it for those mid-lesson wonders, ideas from the classroom object quick writes, etc.
The important part is that the Wonder Wall should be a living thing, not a graveyard where curiosities go to die! You’ll want to make time to refer back to it on a regular basis. We want to teach students that it’s not enough to wonder; they should seek answers!
Make Wonder Wall research an option on must do/may do lists, for early finishers, a standard center rotation, a weekly “wonder hour”, or even the random whole day wonder, research, and share day. It may sound corny, but the occasional surprise shake-up of the routine can make research feel exciting and special!
Inspire Wonder & Curiosity Tip 3:
Starting with the Wonder Wall, it’s good for students to choose what they’re interested in pursuing. What inspires one student won’t do a thing for the next.
Side note (tangent alert‼️): Sometimes students don’t even know what they’re curious about! Heck, there are plenty of adults who don’t even have a good answer for what they’re interested in and what they like to do with their free time. I’d give the same advice to any age — you have to give yourself time to get bored. Now, you probably can’t afford to give up that kind of distraction-free time in your classroom. For me, very long walks (90+ minutes) without other people, music, or podcasts do the trick. My mind takes awhile to unwind and free up, but when it does, I feel like an entirely different person. I can hear my thoughts in a way I can’t access any other way. Getting bored helps me access wonder, curiosity, imagination, and creativity. I highly recommend it!
What you can do, since giving students time to get bored isn’t likely an option, is aim to give students lots of varied opportunities to explore and discover what does light them up inside, a chance to direct more of their learning through inquiry-based learning, and choices in how to demonstrate their understanding of concepts & skills. As much as you can, let them choose. If that scares you, start small and build up over time!
Inspire Wonder & Curiosity Tip 4:
Sometimes we need a little coaxing to realize we’re interested in how something in the world works. I might think I don’t care how my car works, so long as it gets me where I’m going. But when it breaks down and I’m pulled over on the side of the road peeking under a hood at what looks like an unsolvable puzzle of wires and tubes, suddenly I care!
The ability to inspire students to be curious about how things work is one of the greatest benefits of STEM Challenges. Hands-on, student-centered activities give students a reason to care and a reason to wonder how things work.
Imagine you’re about to teach lessons on forces, gravity, physical properties, surface area, measurement, etc. (there are usually a great number of content connections to be made in any challenge).
Imagine diving straight into those lessons. Now imagine you first ask students to build a bridge for length, strength, and/or capacity. (Note: a great STEM Challenge should always include a Criteria & Constraints list tailored to your content standards & students.)
Now imagine your students wondering how to build longer, stronger bridges that can hold greater capacity. Imagine how much more attentive to the content students will be when you’re not just teaching a math or science lesson — you’re teaching the math or science lesson they care about, one they’ve asked for so they can improve their bridge designs. The difference when you teach lessons on the same skills to a curious audience vs. one that isn’t personally motivated or invested in the content is night & day!
It’s can be easy to make the mistake of thinking you don’t have the time for STEM Challenges, but I find they can actually save time because students who are eager to learn, learn faster and with less re-teaching.
In a perfect world, I recommend giving the first iteration of a challenge prior to a lesson or unit to engage and inspire students to want to learn the things you were planning to teach anyway. Then give a second iteration as a culmination activity at the end of the unit, so students can apply what they’ve learned to improve upon their initial designs.
Want to know more about STEM Challenges, get some free PD, and access resources? Visit the STEM Challenge hub.
Inspire Wonder & Curiosity Tip 5:
Visual Quick Writes
Wonder and curiosity are very close cousins to imagination and creativity. Building up one trait often benefits the others. One thing I’ve found inspires students to wonder and imagine is visual quick writes. Well-selected visuals can be a real fire-starter for students, leading them down a rabbit-hole of invention and discovery. The idea is to find compelling visuals that pique students’ curiosity and spark imagination. Images that even the most jaded souls can’t help but feel the synapses firing!
So what makes a great quick write image? Anything that gives your brain a tug! When I find myself laughing at an image, or looking back wondering what’s happening in that picture, I know it’s a keeper! When I write an associated prompt, I try to vary it, so it keeps things fresh for students. I might ask what happened just before the picture was taken, what’s going on in the picture, what questions do you have; other times, I direct students to write a caption, create a haiku, make a meme, etc. The list truly goes on and on. I’ve made over 200 visual writing prompts at this point because students love them, and they’re honestly a lot of fun to create. I take inspiration from the images and whatever skills we might be working on in ELA at the moment.
Some of your images could be natural images from the world and others might be doctored in editing programs like Photoshop to make something otherworldly. You can find images in magazines, online, or create them yourself! I recommend starting a collection of interesting images and add to them as you find them. Want to get a head start to try it out? Subscribe & get the 10 visual quick writes freebie below!
Inspire Wonder & Curiosity: Bonus!
Check out these other great ideas for inspiring wonder and curiosity with your upper elementary students!
From Left to Right:
“Writing Riddles” for Mini-Research in Science | Tarheelstate Teacher
3 Ways to Strengthen Student Questioning During Reading | Think Grow Giggle
Modifying Math Word Problems to Encourage Curiosity | Mix and Math
Wonder Walls & STEM Challenges | Kerry Tracy
Word Wonders: Collecting Multisyllabic Words | Reading by Heart
Using Visible Thinking to Read With Wonder | Wild Child’s Mossy Oak Musings
Stimulating Curiosity through Questioning | The Owl Teacher
Inspiring Curiosity through Technology | Love Learning
Mathematicians Inspire Wonder & Curiosity | Tried and True Teaching Tools
Taking KWL Charts Up a Notch | Elementary Inquiry
Curiosity in the Classroom: Five Steps to Engagement and Creativity | Mikey D Teach
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