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Curiouser and curiouser

Encouraging your students to ask the right questions could change the world

Encouraging your students to ask the right questions could change the world

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, was branded a rebel in school for his inquisitive nature. Blame his environment for his curiosity: he grew up surrounded by people who cared about his creative skills and did their best to encourage them. Jobs' father, a mechanic and carpenter, let his son use his tools to experiment. A neighbour who worked at the information technology company Hewlett-Packard fuelled the boy's interest in electronics by teaching him how devices worked.

These adults gave Jobs the creative confidence to ask provocative questions and challenge the status quo. The best leaders all have a similar story. Each had family, teachers and neighbours who fostered the capacity to ask the right questions - the first step to generating ideas that create value.

This is an important lesson for educators. Anyone who has spent a lot of time around young children knows all too well their propensity for asking questions - lots of questions. They are filled with curiosity and endless wonder about all that is going on around them. Yet that natural inquisitiveness begins to decline when they enter school. This almost certainly emanates from another quality inherent in many children: shyness when they are in groups. Nevertheless, teachers don't always do their bit to encourage curiosity.

According to a paper in the journal Communication Education, the average child aged 6 to 18 asks only one question per month for each class they attend. Contrast that with the average teacher, who, according to the British Education Research Journal, peppers students with 291 questions a day and waits an average of one second for a reply. It is easy to see why young people quickly learn to value right answers more than right questions. Educators, as well as parents, should move away from this trend and instead work to build confidence and curiosity in children, allowing them to ask questions that challenge the accepted answers and unlock their creative drive. To accomplish this we must do the following.

Build a questioning culture in class

Young children will repeat a question if they don't believe adults are listening. And if a pattern of not feeling understood develops, persistence in asking questions can give way to reluctance to challenge the status quo. If children are not listened to and encouraged, they will lose curiosity, potentially stunting their intellectual and creative growth. That is why it is critical for primary school teachers to build a questioning culture in their classrooms by rewarding curiosity with as much praise as a right answer.

Set enquiring homework

Help children learn to unlock answers to questions that they care about. This approach can be as simple as getting them to write down 10 to 20 queries about a problem they are stuck on. These should then be reviewed together. The more questions they ask, the more easily they will be able to determine which questions are important and how to arrive at an answer. If it is an algebra problem, for example, they could ask: why do I find this difficult? What part of the process do I struggle with the most? What do I know from other maths problems that could help with this particular one?

Ask yourself what to do

When it comes to encouraging students to ask questions, you must excel as a questioner yourself in order to truly impart creativity and confidence. Just like a muscle, if you don't exercise these skills they will atrophy. Take a few minutes each day to brainstorm questions about any vexing personal and professional challenges you may be facing.

If you have a troublesome student, start asking yourself: why does he or she disrupt lessons? When do they do this most? Is it always the same type of disruption? Are they like this in other classes? This will help transform you into a sharp and insightful questioner.

The most innovative people sustain themselves with constant curiosity. Jobs may have begun at his father's workbench but this eventually led him to form a billion-dollar company whose products are used and admired the world over. Likewise, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos uses provocative questioning to tackle projects and he encourages his employees to do the same.

Innovative leaders keep innovating because they keep their personal curiosity turbocharged. We should do the same with our children by giving them the courage to ask more questions. Let's keep their what ifs and why nots alive so that one day they will build a better and brighter future for us all.

Hal Gregersen is co-author of The Innovator's DNA, published by Harvard Business School Press, and founder of the 4-24 Project. Find out more at

What else?

Can you use academic research to create your own climate of discovery?


A Teachers TV video explores efforts to boost questioning among primary students.


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