Try This, Not That: Make Over Your Lessons to Promote Student Understanding and Curiosity


By Nancy Van Erp and Diana Fenton

Make Over Your Lessons to Promote Student Understanding and CuriosityHave you ever gotten to the end of a unit or lesson and wondered if your students actually learned anything? Do you have lessons or content that you’re simply not excited to teach? How often do you start your planning with the end in mind? Employing the tried and true methods of Understanding by Design® (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) while also planning to foster curiosity is a surefire way to trigger 21st century learners’ curiosity and ensure greater understanding. Try these five simple shifts to make over your lessons and promote student understanding and curiosity.

  1. Instead of telling students the answers, ask more questions. Better yet, get students to ask their own questions. Asking questions and getting students to ask their own questions is a fundamental leap all teachers need to make to nurture innate curiosity and promote thinking and greater understanding (Rothstein, 2012). This is the heart of inquiry-based teaching. Telling is a stop sign for thinking; questioning is a green light that allows students to explore their natural curiosities, personalize their learning, and fuel their drive to know more. Since the quality of our questions is a direct representation of the quality of our thoughts (Paul & Elder, 1996), questions also serve as formative assessments that teachers can use to guide their instruction and ensure understanding.
  2. Instead of using a textbook as the curriculum, use standards to guide your instruction. Incorporate real-world texts, digital media, and activities that are current, holistic, and relevant to your grade level. Resources and learning activities need to be authentic (Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde, 2012). If students can’t make connections to the content because it does not pique their interest, they will find little meaning in it. Resources can also be differentiated based on students’ interests and backgrounds. Tasks shouldn’t be assigned just because they appear in the teacher’s edition of the textbook (Zemelman, Daniels, & Hyde, 2012). The key is to help students discover and unpack the content and think more deeply about it because they are naturally intrigued by it.
  1. Instead of designing lessons that require students to sit in silence, design lessons that require students to collaborate with peers. Other people’s ideas have long been curiosity provoking because they capture nuances and ways of being that we could never conceive of ourselves. Quiet and solitude are important for certain types of creative work (Cain, 2012), but questioning one’s own assumptions, biases, and previous thinking cannot happen until a different perspective is introduced. Having students work routinely with peers or in collaborative groups allows students to get in the habit of thinking differently, asking their own questions, and expanding their breadth of understanding about an issue or challenge. In turn, this makes possible the creation of an authentic classroom community.
  1. Instead of marking assessments or assignments with a letter grade, checkmark, or smiley face, provide brief but meaningful feedback. Feedback that is formative in nature allows students to continue to wonder, tinker with ideas, and refine and deepen their understanding. When students get feedback that indicates that a task is complete, such as a letter grade, curiosity is squashed and learning halts. On the other hand, feedback that includes questions, comments about your thoughts on their ideas, and connections between their ideas and course content can provoke curiosity, promote reflection, and raise students to a new level of thinking. Feedback can be further enhanced when it comes from multiple sources—like peers—who have been mentored to offer input in a way that encourages critical thinking, assumption questioning, and perspective taking.
  1. Instead of planning one-size-fits-all learning activities, offer students choice. With the growing amount of technology in today’s classrooms, students’ demonstration of learning can take many shapes. Creativity and curiosity are heightened when students have a choice in the topic of investigation and the demonstration of understanding. Students have great ideas of their own, but if they never get to choose their pursuits, their ideas may never get unfurled. One example is a “genius hour” research project that allows students to explore a topic of interest and share their findings in a personalized way. Genius hour can be scaffolded for all levels of learners, and it sparks curiosity and enables deeper understanding because of its constructivist roots.

Every teacher can encourage curious minds by starting with the end in mind and designing learning that honors the power of questions, incorporates relevant and intriguing content, nurtures collaboration, includes meaningful feedback, and offers choice. These practices will transform lessons, enliven classrooms, and ensure deeper understanding while powerfully and intentionally engaging students’ curiosity.


Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking. New York: Broadway Books.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (1996). The critical mind is a questioning mind: Learning how to ask powerful, probing questions. The Foundation for Critical Thinking. Retrieved from

Rothstein, D. (2012, January 13). Setting off and sustaining sparks of curiosity and creativity. Voices in Education: Blog of Harvard Education Publishing. Retrieved from

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Zemelman, S., Daniels, H., & Hyde, A. (2012). Best practice: Bringing standards to life in America’s classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Nancy Van Erp is a former middle and high school Spanish teacher who currently serves as adjunct faculty and program director for the online Master of Education in Learning Design and Technology program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Connect with her on Twitter @IfNotUsThnWho.

Diana Fenton is an educator with 15 years of experience teaching middle level science and college courses. She is currently working in teacher preparation at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, both in Minnesota, and with practicing professionals in the online Master of Education in Learning Design and Technology program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Connect with her on Twitter @dianafenton1.



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