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Why it’s Crucial to Create a Culture of Curiosity and Questions in your Classroom

Does syrup freeze? Where does the universe end? And do tomatoes have lunch? Elisabeth Pugh explains why developing students' inquisitive natures is crucial to initiate higher-order thinking...

  • Why it’s Crucial to Create a Culture of Curiosity and Questions in your Classroom

Years ago, I was going for a job as a biology teacher. The interview had gone well, and we were coming to its conclusion when one of the interviewers asked me, “What makes an outstanding lesson?”

I started to articulate an appropriate response, peppered with terms like ‘progress’ and ‘assessment’, but the interviewer stopped me. “Yes,” she said, patiently, “but what makes an outstanding lesson?”

This gave me pause. If we could refine it down, what key element could transform an ordinary classroom session into an extraordinary piece of teaching and learning?

Perhaps it’s simply because curiosity is a natural byproduct of living as a human being, but I have long since come to the conclusion that the essential ingredient in an outstanding lesson is questions.

Content collaboration

As teachers, we use a variety of questioning techniques to assess, engage, inspire and direct the learning in our classrooms.

Throughout my career I have asked many thousands, perhaps even millions, of questions, but is there an art to the asking? Have I ever asked a perfect question? Does such a concept even exist and, if so, how would we define it?

Any educator will tell you that creating the perfect set of questions is easier said than done.

Teachers have a workload that makes it nigh-on impossible to craft a bespoke set of questions for their class, one that covers their objectives and differentiates for every pupil. It’s an overwhelming task.

But I believe in taking concepts back to the bare bones and ironically, when I do that, I find I am asking yet another question: what do I want my students to know?

Your curriculum is the obvious place to start; but sharing your questions with colleagues from other specialisms is crucial.

For example, unless the way ‘energy’ is taught in physics is shared with biology and chemistry teachers, we will have a terminology issue.

In much the same way, ‘a line of best fit’ means one thing in maths but has a different application in science.

Sharing our questions with colleagues might seem time consuming, but it’s considerably quicker than undoing all those misunderstandings and misconceptions years down the line.

Closed encounters

It’s not just what you ask, but the way that you ask it that matters.

We tend to start with closed questions: “What is the name of the force that pulls objects towards the Earth?”

These often require one-word answers and are commonly used to assess the level of students’ factual knowledge or understanding of terminology. Closed questioning is a valuable technique that can build confidence in learners when they can answer questions correctly.

But, is the perfect question a closed question? Some would say that whilst closed questions can be the bedrock of secure knowledge acquisition, they do not allow students to articulate their learning; often, they merely expose their knowing.

Perhaps the answer lies in… well, the answers! Given that a response to interrogation is often a pivotal point in the learning journey of a student, it is possible for closed questions to lead to rich discussions.

In fact, they are often most useful when a student’s answers are incorrect. A pupil once demonstrated this perfectly for me.

I had been teaching a low-ability group about photosynthesis, and started the lesson with a closed question: “Can you give me an example of an organism that eats food?” One young man answered, “A tomato”.

Whilst initially surprised at the response, I questioned further. “Why do you think that tomatoes eat food?”

He responded, “Because my nan feeds her tomatoes with tomato food”.

By using a closed question followed by a more open question, I uncovered a barrier to his learning. This enabled me to address his misconception instead of just telling him that his answer was incorrect.

In this sense, closed questions that lead to open questions are an incredibly useful way for a teacher to identify and address misconceptions.

Open to debate

An excellent way to use questions to engage a class is through the use of open questioning to frame a lesson or sequence of lesson that focus on a ‘big’ question.

A session on floating and sinking might be introduced in this way with an open question such as, “If the sea were made of syrup, would the Titanic have sunk?”

This technique gives all learners the opportunity to explore their ideas and ask their own questions: “Does syrup freeze?”, “Would the Titanic be able to move through syrup?” “How dense is syrup?”

Using a query that is so open to interpretation and gives learners the freedom to ask their own questions, engages them in their own learning. Group discussions can take place and students can experiment and research to answer their own queries.

Structuring a lesson so that it initiates higher-order thinking is a technique that is critical in classrooms. It can be as simple as stopping after the initial knowledge has been shared to ask students what they think the most important question is about it.

When I used this technique during a lesson on the Solar System, the responses from pupils were impressive: “Is there life on other planets?”, “Where does the universe end?”, ‘How can we find out about other galaxies?”

Every single learner was curious, excited to learn, and crucially, came up with their own questions.

This is when I realised that the perfect question isn’t one that I can ever ask. The perfect question comes from a student because it demonstrates confidence in their knowledge, makes links between complex information, and articulates gaps in their understanding.

As teachers, our role is to create a curiosity culture within our classrooms. We promote enquiry and inquisitive thinking by creating and curating a rich bank of questions.

We need to work together to ask questions that build confidence, questions that can be differentiated, questions that provoke discussion.

But most importantly we need to ask great questions all the time because this will ultimately guide our learners to do the same. This is what makes an outstanding lesson – and that’s what I’d say in interview now… if anyone were to ask.


Top tips for creating a questioning atmosphere

  1. Start with the question, “What do I want my students to know?”
  2. Planning backwards from the answers you’re looking to cultivate allows you to consider the best way to ask your question.
  3. Remove any barriers to making that question effective. Cross check with other specialisms to avoid misconceptions and remove unnecessary vocabulary.
  4. Once you’ve struck question gold, don’t move on. Think about asking that same question in a variety of contexts for differentiation and practise of skills.
  5. Never forget that questions and answers mean nothing without responses from teachers.
  6. Nurture a questioning culture. You will know you’ve had an outstanding lesson if you were not the only one asking the questions.

Elisabeth Pugh is the curriculum lead for science at Learning by Questions (lbq.org). With over 15 years’ teaching and middle leadership in secondary schools across the North West, Elisabeth has a passion for creating a curiosity culture.

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