The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.

Edmund Burke

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.

Zora Neale Hurston

Getting a student to ask a question is possibly the greatest success an educator can have. Curiosity, the desire to know, is educational gold, and inquiry-based instruction mines a child’s curiosity. A recent Internet meme declared that a four-year-old asks 437 questions a day. If you do the math, you’ll find that isn’t true. It isn’t even possible. But a lot of people believe it. Why? Because questioning is a child’s natural state. And a good teacher works every day to connect the child’s desire for answers with the information that we as educators believe they need to survive in the world and live satisfying lives. In fact, most pedagogical theories, at their base, are explorations of how to make this connection.

When students are actively involved in the learning process—as opposed to simply receiving information through listening or reading—they retain more, understand more, and, importantly, enjoy learning more. In their article “Questions that Compel and Support,” S. G. Grant, Kathy Swan, and John Lee cite several recent studies to this effect:

Reports increasingly show how teachers make inquiry the centerpiece of their instructional practices. Even better are those studies that show students—all students—benefitting from inquiry-based instruction. Inquiry can be as effectively pursued with elementary students as with their secondary peers and is as valuable for academically challenged students as the academically gifted. Moreover, studies of large-scale, standardized tests show a positive correlation between high scores and inquiry-based instruction.

In these Classroom Materials, our goal is to provide teachers with material from the Newberry collections that will inspire students to ask questions. We offer teachers ideas and some background so that they can help students generate—and answer—those questions, explore the material, and pursue more knowledge if they wish.

The natural corollary to inquiry-based learning is, and always must be, critical thinking. These lessons and activities ask students to be aware of bias, including their own; to make inferences and be prepared to explain them; to draw conclusions and be prepared to defend them. They offer students practice in close examination, analysis, and evaluation. They encourage drawing on previous knowledge and synthesizing information from a variety of sources.

We want to maintain the rigor and scholarly integrity the Newberry Library is known for, and we want the material to be accessible to a wider educational community. Some of the activities in the Classroom Materials section are “grab-and-go.” Teachers can take ten minutes to look over the material before entering the classroom and use it, confident that it will be academically sound and tied to their curriculum. Others are lesson plans that are quite detailed, which could form the basis for a several-day unit of study.

Many college teachers report that they have to teach entering students the basic skills of information acquisition—including research and critical thinking—remedially. And it’s not easy. The habit of inquiry and the skills that make it fruitful are like a language—much easier to acquire at an early age. It is our hope that these Classroom Materials will help you help your students to learn that language.

See S. G. Grant, Kathy Swan, and John Lee, “Questions that Compel and Support,” Social Education vol. 81 iss. 4 (2017): 200-203.