Fostering Curiosity In The RE Classroom

By Louisa Smith

 

Tips on how to encourage and develop curiosity in your RE students, from the creator of The RE Podcast

 

Aristotle wrote ‘Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all’.

RE is ideal to cultivate curiosity in the young people we teach. Curiosity is a strong desire to know or learn something. Humans are born with curiosity, it is right at the heart of the human experience – it is why we have explored space, invented computers and have found cures for diseases and as such it is how we have survived! Young people don’t lack curiosity – they are more curious than they have ever been and relentlessly absorb information.  However, young people need teachers to guide and help them navigate all the information they have access to – to critically assess what they read.

Curiosity is not just about finding things out, but asking questions ABOUT what they find out; Is this true? How do I feel about this? What would be the consequence of believing this? Our job is no longer teaching them WHAT to think but HOW to think. RE helps our young people become curious about themselves – this is vital as our young people are bombarded with information about who they should be. RE empowers them to stop and consider this information.  Plus RE helps our young people to be curious about others – to ask questions about what motivates people and challenge the misconceptions spread by society.

One final benefit of fostering curiosity in your students is that it is a transferable skill!  If any student wants to enter science, medicine, journalism, law, policing, investigating, designing, inventing, entrepreneurship, business, they have to be curious about the world, they have to ask questions, abandon assumptions and critically examine the evidence.

RE, by nature, lends itself to fostering curiosity.  It deals with the big questions in life; How did we get here? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Where do we go when we die?  Such questions, if taught in the right way, make children curious about the world around them and helps them focus on something bigger than themselves – crucial to support mental health.  Although discussing matters about life and death should always be trauma-informed. Alongside exploring big questions, we can teach our students how to spot flaws in arguments so they can navigate the many, often unhelpful, voices. For example; ad hominem is a technique used a lot in politics.  One party will attack a person in the opposing party in order to undermine their policies.

Another one used is ‘false dilemma’. This is where you simplify an issue into two options.  For example, either you do what someone asks or you don’t love them.  The world is never as simple as that.  You can disagree with someone without being anti them, you can not do what someone says and still like them!

Another aspect of the RE curriculum that fosters curiosity is moral dilemmas and debates.  These are often where children thrive, but this is not just about giving them the opportunity to express their own opinion (although that, in itself, is an empowering experience in giving young people an opportunity to have a voice) but also HOW to decide what is right and wrong.  We can teach them Situation Ethics, Utilitarianism, Deontology so that they have a moral structure to decide what is right and wrong, but we can also teach them evaluation skills – which moral position is the strongest?  This could be based on evidence or support from relevant authorities.

Another way of fostering curiosity is by exposing them to beliefs and practices different from their own.  There are multiple benefits of making them curious about diversity.  One is that it improves their cultural capital and helps level the playing field between the haves and have nots. This knowledge helps them to feel that they belong in a space different from their own and will foster their own curiosity about the world.   It also helps them see the benefit of diversity and that difference isn’t to be feared but celebrated.  It breaks down misconceptions and prejudice so they become more open-minded leading to a growth mindset.

In the classroom, curiosity means engaged children. Passivity and boredom leads to little curiosity – in fact it could make them less curious.  There can also be little curiosity without challenge.  Curiosity requires hard thinking – what we call ‘desirable difficulty’.  If it is too easy, they will switch off and therefore curiosity is extinguished, but if it is too hard, they will put up barriers to learning, and therefore block out curiosity.  Curiosity means great questions from the students.  Therefore, space must be given for this.  However, not all questions are great questions so children must be taught what a good question is. Give time for your students to write several questions and then get them to choose their best one.  Rewards good questions – particularly ones which you as a teacher have not thought about.

Similarly, don’t accept a student’s first answer.  Their first answer is not always their best answer.  So, once they have given an answer, name it as their first answer and then ask for their best answer!

Another way we can foster curiosity is through well-chosen pedagogy for example through effective questioning. The best questioning is planned and deliberate.  What would be the best question to ask to foster curiosity?  I have found that ‘what if?’ questions work well e.g ‘What if there was no religion?’ ‘What if it was right to kill?’

Another way of fostering curiosity is by using analogy.  Often the content we teach feels far removed from the students’ experience and we run the risk of ‘othering’ people. For example, rituals.  Baptism, prayer, communion all involve actions, movements and words which are often only meaningful once you understand them.  Compare this to the birthday cake ritual to help them understand.

Using analogy also helps children be curious about ideas that appear alien to them. For example, the train analogy in Aquinas’ first cause theory.

Our subject is full of stories and these are also a fantastic way of fostering curiosity as children remember them and relate to them more easily. Often deep meaning is portrayed through storytelling.

One thing that can prevent children from being curious is self-consciousness in front of their peers, therefore not wanting to ask questions for fear of being ridiculed. Or being worried about getting something wrong and not wanting to ask questions in case it highlights a misunderstanding. Ways to overcome could be using whiteboards (much less threat if you write something only the teacher sees and which can be rubbed off. Well-chosen videos are a great way of fostering curiosity – particularly if the video blow’s their mind.  When studying cosmology, for example the Buzzfeed video called 209 seconds that will blow your mind – a fantastic video about the size of the universe.  This can be linked to an explanation of ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’. Now I want to talk about how NOT to foster curiosity in the classroom. First of all, don’t assume the subject material will foster curiosity alone – just because it inspires you, doesn’t mean it will inspire teenagers – you have to find the hook!

You are not going to foster curiosity in all children all of the time.  Focus on helping one child per lesson feel more curious about one thing!

The other mistake many teachers make, myself included, is intellectual arrogance. But don’t be tempted to show off your knowledge.  This may demoralise your students and could stop them from being curious.  Fostering curiosity means empowering children to discover things for themselves, not just giving them the answers.  Use your knowledge to ask the right questions to lead the children to know what you know.

Finally, do not go and replan every lesson you are going to teach. Look at one thing you are teaching this week. Find one interesting fact or write one brilliant question that you can use in your lesson.

 

You can read more articles by Louisa Smith here.

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