The first stage of any inquiry process is helping students figure out just what it is they want to learn more about: in other words, ignite their curiosity. Let's look at three strategies you can use to help students look at the world with curious eyes: establishing existing knowledge, incorporating emotion, and close observation.
The initial stages of inquiry involve asking questions based on existing knowledge. Students can gain both curiosity and confidence early on by identifying what they already know about a topic or issue. Before embarking on a research project, help them activate prior knowledge by reading a related picture book or presenting a topic overview. Students can then fill out a KWL chart, a three-column chart where students write down what they already know, what they want to know, and what they ultimately learn about a subject.
Even some brief ABC brainstorming can help students determine their own existing knowledge. For example, before researching the Civil War, students can engage in a word association exercise in which they write down names or ideas relating to the larger subject: Abraham Lincoln for A, Battle of Gettysburg for B, and so on.
Research shows that adding to our foundation of knowledge fuels our curiosity for more learning. Activities like these can help students recognize what they already know, which in turn can help them wonder about what they don't yet know.
Students' curiosity can be cultivated further when their emotions are activated. Classroom activities that provoke surprise, anticipation, joy, or even disgust can help propel students further into the inquiry process. For example: students can look at a primary historical source, like a piece of artwork or photograph, and think about their own emotional response to it. A lesson about World War II, for instance, might begin with students viewing a photo of children at a Japanese internment camp. Students can be asked for their personal reactions to such a photograph. What can they imagine about the lives of those children?
Emotions come from the personal connections we make with subject matter; the more we personalize a subject for students, the more questions they'll have about it, which can help them dive deeper into inquiry.
Finally, the act of close observation can lead students to greater curiosity and deeper exploration. When we say "close" observation, we mean taking more time to look at something without the pressure of drawing conclusions about it. We can give students space to slow down and look at a text, image, or idea from different angles, letting their interest guide them without the pressure of presenting their own perspective right away. For example, when students look at a series of World War II internment camp photos, they can explore the content on their own and look at interesting faces, settings, or moments, and think about the people and events being depicted before having to find concrete information about them. Other sources they can explore might including a reference article or introductory chapter in a nonfiction book. Close observation leads to wondering, which can inspire the inquiry process that follows.
When students are given the opportunity to identify what they already know about a topic, make personal connections, and observe closely, their resulting curiosity can help ignite a sense of wonder that can not only sustain them throughout their years at school, but transform them into lifelong learners.