Voices in Education

Setting Off and Sustaining Sparks of Curiosity and Creativity
In the summer of 2010, Newsweek pronounced—on its cover no less—that the United States was suffering from a “Creativity Crisis.” The coauthors of the cover story, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, quite ably synthesized cutting-edge research about how to create the conditions for promoting creativity and offered specific ideas on how to address the crisis.

Conventional wisdom, they reported, perceives creativity as emerging almost spontaneously from divergent thinking, that is, from the kind of thinking that can go off in many directions and generate new ideas. New research, however, has shown that creativity also requires convergent thinking, the ability to sharpen focus, to narrow down, to synthesize ideas and information. Schools, they argue, need to offer students opportunities to do both divergent and convergent thinking.

Add to these findings the new article from the Harvard Educational Review, in which Susan Engel from Williams College makes a compelling case for promoting greater curiosity in schools. She calls for a “shift in the way we see the traditional role of a teacher, from one who answers questions to one who elicits them.”

Eliciting questions from students is a noble goal. The ability to generate questions serves as a renewable source of intellectual energy that makes it possible for students to continuously inquire, explore, problem-solve and, indeed, create in setting after setting. But, far too few students learn to ask their own questions.

When my coauthor, Luz Santana, and I were writing Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, we were struck by just how hard teachers—on their own initiative—were already working to spark students’ curiosity and creativity. The teachers were spending hours, if not entire weekends, trying to figure out just the right question to stimulate students thinking, to set off a moment of great discovery, and to turn on all the light bulbs, even the ones that had grown dim over time. Adding this challenge to their already heavy load of daily tasks left them bone weary and, even worse, discouraged when their carefully crafted question turned on, at best, only one or two of the 20 to 30 light bulbs in the room.

The teachers kept asking students questions, but began to wonder if there was a better way to set off a spark of creative thinking in the classroom. They made it clear to us that they wanted an answer to this question: What is the simplest way to promote curiosity and creative thinking in any classroom?

In our work with the Right Question Institute, we developed, through a long process of trial and error, the Question Formulation Technique. We saw that teachers were able to take the Question Formulation Technique and quickly integrate it into their lesson plans. Teachers in vastly different communities, teaching on many levels, soon saw new sparks of curiosity and creativity set off by students learning to ask their own questions.

A teacher with 33 years in the classroom in a large urban high school noticed that by using the Question Formulation Technique when teaching a poem she taught for years, “the students asked questions that had never before been raised.” And a young teacher, early in her career, in a primary grade classroom in a small town, observed “my students amazed themselves, and me, by all that they figured out ‘just’ by learning to ask their own questions.”

For Hayley Dupuy, a sixth-grade science teacher in Palo Alto, CA, who uses the Question Formulation Technique in her classroom, the creative component seems fairly obvious: “There is inherent creativity in students asking their own questions…the process of having to think about one's own questions requires creative thinking.”

Savvy teachers like Dupuy are highly attuned to knowing quickly what works and what doesn’t work with their students. They don’t need that explained to them. But, in writing the book, we struggled with explaining why asking questions could have such a transformational effect.

The research cited in the Newsweek article helped us see that the Question Formulation Technique promotes both divergent and convergent thinking—exactly the two ingredients required to promote creativity. Teachers in urban as well as suburban and rural schools whose students had weak reading and writing skills demonstrated that their students became intellectually curious and moved to a very high level of creative thinking when they became adept at asking their own questions.

We also learned from teachers that when their students used another step in the process to name what they had learned, how they had learned it, and how they could apply what they learned, they often had creative breakthroughs in their understanding of ideas and materials. They had just used another invaluable ingredient for creative thinking, metacognition, and that catapulted them directly into the rarefied company of sophisticated thinkers. We took the exact same process and taught it to students well equipped with advanced reading and writing skills (such as students at various graduate schools at Harvard University, including the Law School and the School of Education), and they were struck by how they could more effectively produce their own questions, improve them, and strategize on how to use them.

Sometimes the challenges in education are so enormous that they demand complex solutions. But, the goal of sparking curiosity and creativity may be accomplished more simply and more directly, by teaching students how to ask their own questions.

About the Author: Dan Rothstein is codirector of The Right Question Institute (RQI) and coauthor of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press, 2011).