Passion and curiosity can’t happen ‘on demand’! or ‘What do the ‘shoulder shruggers’ need?

This post first appeared on  I’m posting it again here – with a few extra thoughts included!

Throughout 2014, I have been busy exploring various approaches to personalized inquiry in schools. This has been one of my own significant ‘inquiries’ over the last few years. Providing more personalized inquiry opportunities for students is certainly gaining in popularity and momentum and happens in various ways through such approaches as genius hour, innovation days, itime, etc. Each year, I learn many new lessons about how to make these opportunities work more effectively to ensure high quality, rigorous learning while providing choice and flexibility.

I believe strongly in the the learning power afforded to students when they have the opportunity to pursue a passion or interest – something important to them. I SEE how the engagement in learning is amplified in these moments.  The rise of digital technologies in classrooms also means it is more possible than ever before for students to follow specific, personal lines of inquiry whether they are skyping an expert, checking out an instructional youtube clip, logging on to an international newspaper article, sending out a digital survey – the possibilities are endless. I want to say up front that I don’t advocate personalised inquiry in place of shared, collaborative or even ‘teacher initiated’ inquiry. Both approaches have an important role in the inquiry classroom.

Two comments in recent times have given me pause for thought. The first came from a child – not from a school I have worked in – but one that is obviously making efforts to personalize learning. The children have all been given the opportunity to do a ‘passion project’. They have 4 weeks and are using some class time and some homework time to complete it. They have simply been told to ‘investigate their passion’ To be fair, the school does not seem to have any strong, explicit inquiry program in place so she may well felt more equipped and connected if it had. Regardless, it’s not the first time I have heard a child say… “But I don’t really HAVE a passion, I don’t know what to do!” Far from being excited by the prospect of investigating something of her choice, this 11 year old was floundering – grasping at random ‘topics’ her teacher had selected and shrugging at any suggestions I made related to some of her (admittedly limited) interests outside of school.

The second comment I heard was from a parent following a talk I gave recently where the focus was on ‘wandering and wondering’ with your child and the delight and power of young children’s questions. At the end of the talk she said her own child asked lots of questions and was a keen, curious learner at home…but when it came to “discovery time” at her son’s school, he was often ‘stuck’ and did not know what to do – he also felt rushed to pick something to work on for the session and expected to suddenly ‘switch on’ his curiosity. I sensed a few problems with the way these sessions may have been run but did not take that further. What I DID say was that like all learners, we can’t expect kids to be curious ‘on demand’ .

Passion, strong interest, curiosity, a desire to find out or learn to do something new or better….these are the driving dispositions of personalized inquiry. Some children almost spill over with enthusiasm and an eagerness to pursue something while others – well not so much. So, what do they need? What do the ‘shoulder-shruggers’, the ‘I dunno’s’, the “I’ll do what he’s doing” kids need … in order to be more authentically engaged in experience of personalized inquiry?

  1. Time. Rather than seeing the foci for itime/genius hour as something to work on in dedicated sessions – encourage kids to build a bank of possibilities throughout the year. Researcher’s notebooks, wonderwalls, ideas boards, etc. allow the learner to collect their own questions and interests as they arise – rather than ‘on demand’. Gradually building a collection of possibilities gives the students something to ‘dip into’ when they have an opportunity to launch into a new journey of inquiry. Curiosity – even passion – as dispositions that need to be nurtured as part of a wider classroom culture.  Keeping a ‘researchers notebook’ rather like an author’s notebook can be a good way for students to capture ideas for inquiries when they arise – to be returned to when the time is provided for this kind of investigation.
  1. Inspiration. Part of the teacher’s role is to be ever on the look out for stimulating, interesting questions/issues/events that might pique interest and be worth pursuing…share these with the children and create a bank of wonders for those students who might need that extra support. Websites like are excellent resources. Ted talks, short video clips, articles – can all provide great springboards for interest.  Teachers who consistently model their OWN enthusiasm for learning, finding things out and who show excitement about the range of things kids themselves are interested in go a long way to providing an inspiring atmosphere for inquiry. And while we encourage children to become passionate learners – let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot by making children feel that if they are not PASSIONATE about it, it’s not worthy! A thoughtful, even reserved interest or desire to clarify something may be enough to provoke a quality investigation. Once underway, itime or its equivalent can generate its own energy as children gain ideas from each other. Have students share their investigations in small groups, conduct gallery walks, keep public lists and charts of the ideas they have explored – peers inspiring peers.
  1. Breadth. Beware the dreaded ‘topic’… itime investigations do not have to involve students inquiring into a random topic (eg: panda bears, formula 1 racing) …they certainly may…but they may also be an opportunity to improve a skill or learn a new skill, to work on an action plan, to canvas people’s opinions about an important issue, to create make and build. If students think of a ‘project’ the way many of their parents experienced a ‘project’ it is no wonder they can’t get past simply choosing a topic. The best personalized inquiries are also seen by students and teachers as an opportunity to ‘build their learning muscle’ – it’s so much more than the content.
  1. Forethought.   Many of the more successful personalised inquiry programs I see, really scaffold students thinking before, during and after their investigations. Students complete proposals (careful not to make them too arduous!), or keep researcher’s notebooks, and conference with peers and teachers to gain support and advice rather than simply ‘coming up with a topic’.  The teacher’s role is critical in helping shape the investigation so it is manageable and worthwhile.
  1. Trust: One of the struggles we have as teachers is our own tendency to judge the choices that children make. We give them a choice – but we can also make it pretty clear when we disapprove of the choice! Perhaps this is why some children are tentative to say what they want to explore. Of course there will be some things that won’t be appropriate for investigation – and criteria for that can be worked out with the class. But we need to be mindful not to shoot down their interests because we might not judge it worthy of spending time on. The best teachers I see know how to take that child’s desire to learn about (eg soccer) and help them develop a question or a focus for investigation that stretches thinking without devaluing their interest (eg: How has the game of soccer changed in the last 50 years – is it a better game now than it was?Why?). Spending time in thoughtful conversation with children who need that extra support is vital. Just as we conference with students about their reading and writing – so too should we about their researching. This is not ‘teacher free’ learning!

Providing opportunities for true, personalized inquiry as part of our classroom program can be a wonderful way to support the growth of the learner.   But if we expect them to ‘turn on the curiosity’ for one session a week without a broader culture of inquiry and the necessary time for reflection and inspiration, well…I guess we can expect our fair share of ‘cut and paste’ posters and half-hearted powerpoint presentations.

How do you encourage and sustain authentic passion and curiosity in your classroom?

Just wondering…

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11 Responses to Passion and curiosity can’t happen ‘on demand’! or ‘What do the ‘shoulder shruggers’ need?

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    I’ve got your shrugicon right here:


  2. Kathryn Schravemade says:

    Reblogged this on The Private Teacher.


  3. lburman says:

    As always, I LOVE what you have to say in this post, Kath. I will definitely be sharing it with my network. It’s interesting that we so often expect children to ‘switch on the curiosity switch’ – like “What are your questions about …?” How could we know what we are curious about if we haven’t had any previous experience with the topic or idea? I often see there isn’t enough immersion – through some authentic, rich and engaging experiences – that help to spark that curiosity. I’m reminded that we so often don’t know what we don’t know until we are in the midst of our learning. And then, of course, this relates completely to how professional learning is presented TO educators. I wonder how important it is for us (as educators) to have authentic inquiry experiences for ourselves before we can really guide the inquiry of children?


  4. kathmurdoch says:

    Couldn’t agree more Lisa. I have a theory that the best inquiry teachers are in fact those who are avid inquirers themselves! Part of activating curiosity is to show kids (through modelling) how their every day lives offer up countless ‘seeds’ that can grow into wonderings and potentially become an inquiry path on which to travel. 🙂


  5. Sandy Skehan says:

    As always Kath you provoke such great thinking and encourage constant reflection!! Curiosity needs to be ignited, it is then that the questions come!!


  6. kdceci says:

    We’ve thought about this a lot as we used to have our PYP Exhibition focused around student passions. Over the years it morphed into curiosities and one way we helped address those shoulder shruggers was to give them time to explore something like It’s a great site that allows students to hands-on explore different skills. Wonderopolis is also great.


  7. sherrattsam says:

    We have encountered exactly the things you describe in the last year or so. Many of the students are, I’m afraid, not experiencing inquiry in their units… although this is improving.

    It is no surprise that many teachers struggled to make “passion projects” come alive – the students are lacking the skills in which to give it the life it needs. Total inquiry came as too much of a shock! The PYP Exhibition last year suffered the same thing – it took a few weeks of it just for the students to get accustomed to what was expected of them, yet it should be totally natural by then.


  8. kathmurdoch says:

    Thanks Sam – yes, this highlights the importance of two things. The first is that we need to give students regular opportunities for more student led inquiry from the moment they begin school – like all things, it takes practice! The second is that we need to be MUCH more explicit about the skills and processes used in a journey of inquiry. We need to ‘let them in on the secret’ as we teach. In schools where I see both these things happening, personalised inquiry works beautifully. It’s all about providing choice WITH support.


  9. Denise Krebs says:

    Thank you, Kath, for sharing this post. I totally agree that it’s about a classroom culture of inquiry. For me this started when I became a connected educator. Then the culture grew and developed when we started doing “genius hour.” Everything changed for us, but I was committed to giving them TIME, as you said, and CHOICE, which goes along with TRUST. As I trusted them more, they trusted me more, and our culture became stronger. That was in the junior high classroom.

    Now I teach Kindergarten, and I continue to promote inquiry by taking time to explore wonders, give as much choice as possible, and develop mutual trust. As you said, “a broader culture of inquiry and the necessary time for reflection and inspiration” is imperative for meaningful engagement.

    Thanks again for the great post.


  10. My second year of genius hour seems to be easier for the students to choose their topics. I work with classes grades 3-8.
    Last year, I felt like the older the grade, the more difficulty they had picking their driving question, or sticking with their choice. Was it due to the lack of autonomy in the past, or a lack of open creativity? Who knows. I am happy to be spending less class time finding passions, and more time exploring them.


  11. Sanjay says:

    If you are looking for NCERT books for Class 11, you have come to the right place. NCERT books are important resources for your exam preparation. Students of CBSE-affiliated schools CBSE 11th Class Books should finish these books first and then only use reference textbooks for more practice. Central Board of Secondary Education or CBSE recommends the books published by the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training).


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