Designing Curriculum and Classroom Practices to Support Curiosity

Designing Curriculum & Classroom Practices to Support Curiosity

December 6, 2022


By Dr. Amanda Sullivan and Dr. Amanda Strawhacker 


Albert Einstein once said that "the important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." While young children start out naturally curious and questioning everything around them, something happens as they grow up: they stop asking questions. In fact, right around age 5, when most kids are starting formal schooling, the questions they ask drop steeply and their natural curiosity becomes stifled. This is a problem! Fostering intellectual curiosity, or the thirst for new information, is at the heart of supporting a lifelong love of learning. In our previous blog posts in this series, we have explored the myriad of ways that curiosity is linked with K-12 academic achievement in areas like critical thinking, media literacy, and foundational science skills. Most recently, we explored how curiosity can be used to support Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Researchers and educators generally agree on the benefits of fostering intellectual curiosity, but what is less obvious is how to do this – especially within the confines of a formal school day when standards must be met and core content must be covered. How can elementary school educators, for example, design curriculum and learning environments that inspire children to continue asking questions rather than stifling their intellectual curiosity? What tools or strategies can teachers use to support curiosity when working with neurodiverse populations? To answer these questions and get insight into practical classroom-based, we sat down with veteran educator Kara Freed to get her advice and insights on this topic. 


Tips for a Curiosity-Rich Classroom

Kara Freed is a special educator who has been teaching in blended classrooms for a decade in multiple boroughs of New York City and the surrounding suburbs in charter and public schools. She has a passion for supporting her students’ curiosity and building their confidence as they gain new knowledge. Based on her experiences, we asked her how educators can design classroom experiences that support curiosity.  The following tips were compiled from her answers: 


Consider a Workshop Model

“I would suggest using workshop models and shifting the academic ownership onto the students,” Kara explained. In this approach Kara explains that she takes the role of a facilitator - rather than leader - of the lessons. Developed by Carmen Fariña (former New York City Schools Chancellor and head of the New York City Department of Education) and Lucy Calkins (Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University), the workshop model is a classroom structure that deemphasizes teacher-led instruction and prioritizes learning through student-led exploration and discussion. Among the many workshop model strategies, core practices include brief teacher instruction at the beginning of a lesson, followed by much longer time spent in small group work (e.g, students seated at “pods” of 4 desks, or regular partners) to explore the new idea. During small group time, the teacher floats between groups to offer assistance, engage in conversation, and conduct in-situ assessment. The lesson ends with small groups sharing out about their progress and discoveries.


Model Your Own Curiosity

 “It is also important to model curiosity yourself. If you don't know the answer? Be honest. Show students in real time how you would find the answer yourself, using resources that are readily available to the students. If you're lucky enough to have another adult in the room to support learning, model cooperative productive struggle together to normalize the process and show students respectful and effective strategies.”


Find Authentic Ways to Assess Curiosity

“We would assess curiosity by looking for behaviors such as: questioning each other's perspectives and ideas, guess and check, comparing their strategies and ideas to their friends, and self evaluation. Are they evaluating their own process? Their own ideas? If so, how? Curious students may ask these questions and exhibit these behaviors in small group or partner work, or even during workshop lessons as a whole group.” You can even involve students in their own authentic assessment using simple survey questions such as, “How do you feel after today’s activity?” and offer visual answer formats (e.g, a stoplight where red is “I’d like to try it again”, yellow is “I have some questions but I think I understand”, and green is “I get it!”).


Use Real-World Problems 

“I will pose a real world, engaging story problem and ask them to solve it using any strategy they know how. We will then take notes on their strategies and purposefully debrief them in a way that will lead to students making connections between them that will lead to further mathematical understanding in our whole class discussion”. Blogs like Counting with Kids provide dozens of useful ways to visualize and manipulate math concepts using physical and playful activities.  


Convey Importance to Families

I focus on the importance of academic ownership and self-reliance when discussing curiosity with parents. I ask them what their dreams are for their child. These dreams almost always align with individuals who are able to explore the world with curiosity. Discussing the direct line between curiosity and their child's aspirations has helped to support parent investment in and understanding of the importance of curiosity.” To help parents align, you can suggest specific ways that parents can support curiosity, such as exploring family heritage, discussing cultural and news topics together at meal times, and working together to solve problems or answer questions that children have.  


Supporting Curiosity in Special Education Settings

Being a special education teacher, we also asked Kara if she could share any insight into fostering curiosity in special education settings. She shared that her approach to curiosity is “the same within my general or special education experience. What changes between the two is the level of differentiation that I will do before the lesson begins or who I check in with when.” In special education settings, teachers may wish to:


Pair Students Appropriately 

“Pair students with peers who are at a similar level to them helps them to build curiosity instead of relying on another student to do the thinking for them.” Sometimes teachers can find it helpful to pair students of different abilities so that a more advanced student can help the other master the lesson. However, this can backfire by negatively impacting the confidence of the student who is still learning the lesson, and keeping the student who has already learned it on a review path rather than challenging them to learn something new. Students with similar abilities are more likely to share each others questions and relate to disconnects in understanding. 


Provide Appropriate Support

“In neurodiverse settings, this may mean that some students have highlighted, chunked, or pre-annotated passages with questions that would bring their attention to key points in a text. Some students may have access to extra manipulatives or materials to represent their mathematical thinking in a concrete way.” Kara further explains that it is important not to remove ownership of new knowledge and instead “give them a resource that would give them a ‘boost up’ to find the understanding for themselves.” 


Using PebbleGo to Support Curiosity 

Throughout our interview with Kara, she reiterated the importance of asking questions as opposed to teaching facts or providing answers. She explains, “Curiosity can become hindered in a classroom where the teacher is seen as the sage on the stage. If you view children as empty cups that you need to fill with knowledge, you become the source of all information.” Instead, she suggests providing students with resources and opportunities to ask - and answer - their own questions. 

One resource used in the elementary school Kara currently teaches in is PebbleGo. Tools like PebbleGo and PebbleGo Next offer educators an effective way to support curiosity using many of the approaches and strategies outlined in the previous section. PebbleGo is a safe and easy-to-navigate curricular content hub specifically designed to foster curiosity and learning with K-2 students. It is packed with informational articles, games, video content, and more. Using PebbleGo, educators can engage early elementary students with content designed to support curiosity that is created for their specific needs and curriculum, regardless of reading ability, with authentic read-aloud audio. 

PebbleGo also offers a range of curricular resources such as lesson plans, activities, tutorials, and more. Ready to start teaching lessons that spark curiosity?  Foster curiosity and prompt exploration with these lesson plans that use the context of a game show to explore questions. Students will have fun working collaboratively with their teams to research the selected PebbleGo/PebbleGo Next modules and find answers to game show questions.



Want to learn more about designing curriculum to support curiosity? Check out the following helpful resources:


Did you know this is the eighth post in a series on intellectual curiosity? If you missed one of our past blog posts check them out for more resources and tips:


Curious to learn more? Let us know what you want to see on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using @CapstonePub and #PebbleGo and  #PGCuriosity. Be sure to tag the authors of this blog post too! 


Dr. Amanda Sullivan - Twitter @AASully, Instragram: @keikisullivan

Dr. Amanda Strawhacker - Twitter @ALStrawhacker, Instagram: @ALStrawhacker

Together: Twitter @theDrsAmanda