Meaning: “The cure for boredom is curiosity,” wrote Dorothy Parker. These ages of starting kindergarten and moving through the elementary school years will be when the inquiring mind is ripe for asking questions; tinkering with objects; playing with toys for building and making and that have open-ended possibilities; looking up and researching questions about everyday observations, like “Where does the water go after it goes down the drain?” “How does all that garbage fit into the garbage truck?” or “How does that warm air come out of that vent in the ceiling?” These are also prime ages to allow children to figure things out on their own, rather than stepping in and solving problems for them…whether practical problems, like how to pack the lunch box in such a way as to avoid spillage, or where to put the teacher’s sign-up form in the backpack without having it rip and crinkle up, or the bigger life questions that they’ll pose. Remember that these are the ages when the “why” questions start flowing, often continuously. Try not to be annoyed by these questions. I recall a first grade teacher in one of my schools who would keep a “why sheet” on the wall and write down “why” questions as they were uttered throughout the year. She would never answer these on her own, but would instead offer an opportunity for other children to take a stab at the answers, sometimes returning to a particular question months after it was initially asked. Asking questions and having one’s questions validated is empowerment. Fostering inquiry—questions, thinking, guessing, analyzing, figuring out, researching, predicting, exploring—this is about nurturing the core of one’s heart and soul. It is about bringing a child into enlightenment. The word “education” comes from the Latin verb educare, meaning to lead out, associated with leading out of darkness or ignorance, according to one of my college professors. Nothing represents this better than the inquiring or inquisitive mind. Perhaps more fundamentally, the inquiring mind, when it is nurtured and validated, will nourish the child’s soul, and thus will become the best way to ward off boredom and resistance to school, a phase that so many children unfortunately can fall into as they enter their tween years and beyond.
Actions: First things first, as a parent or a teacher, one must honor and respect the inquiring mind and be at the ready to encourage and cultivate it right there on the spot whenever it emerges. For the classroom teacher, student questions must be supported and never squelched. Of course the teacher needs to move forward with the grade’s goals and syllabus, but there are many ways to harness student questions and respect curiosity without squelching the child’s voice and without postponing the curricular mandates. Teachers need to be vigilant regarding questions that are voiced, about puzzled or confused looks on faces, about the seemingly frivolous tangent that students will utter in the midst of a classroom lesson—no, the students can’t direct the course themselves, but teachers can accommodate curiosity and questions without upending the purpose of the lesson. Teachers have the capacity to respect puzzlement and questions, and teachers should practice placing value on these inquisitive moments in the day. And whenever there is class discussion, even when it is not about the reading or the math lesson, but about what the class might do next in their day, such as what they might do during recess, teachers need to honor and affirm student voices. Critical thinking—the central academic outcome of inquiry—is largely fostered through the development of independent thinking: supporting the formulation of one’s opinion and drawing one’s own conclusion. This is what leads to critical thinking. The weaker teachers will skate through their lessons and ignore or talk over all the questions and confusion that percolate in the classroom or show up on students’ faces. The master teacher will always be listening to students and watching their facial expressions. The master teacher will never cut off student questions or will never transition to the next topic without student readiness, which means checking in with students to ascertain that they are learning and that their questions or needs for clarification are accommodated.
Learning: For teachers, there is a huge amount of resources pertinent to stimulating curiosity or in creating a classroom culture of questioning. Just formulating the teacher’s questions in the right way can help spawn an enhanced culture of inquiry among students. One helpful article is “28 Question Stems That Improve Critical Thinking Skills,” by Lee Watanabe-Crockett, on the globaldigitalcitizens.org site. An excellent article on stimulating curiosity, both at school and at home, is “Curiosity: The Force Within a Hungry Mind,” by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, found on the edutopia.org site. A sort of brainstorming book of ideas on how to get critical thinking activities going at home or at school, is 101 Fresh & Fun Critical Thinking Activities (Grades 1 to 3), by Rozakis.