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Using curious conversations to build better classroom relationships

By August 28, 2020No Comments

One of the more interesting findings to emerge from studies of curiosity (which I share in my new book, Building a Curious School) is this: Curious people have better relationships.

So, it’s perhaps not surprising that a new survey of 518 teachers appearing in the Journal of Education finds that teachers who reported having higher levels of curiosity (for example, answering positively to questions like “I like finding out why people behave the way they do”) were also more likely to have more positive and meaningful teacher-student relationships (for example, answering positively to questions like, “I like my students” and “I am happy with my relationship with my students”).

It’s not a huge correlation, mind you; curiosity predicted only about 6 percent of the perceived variance in teacher-student relationships. Yet it was a better predictor of relationships than teachers sharing the same socioeconomic status or racial background as their students—at least according to teachers’ self-reporting.

Why does any of this matter? Well, as reported in a meta-analysis of 119 studies, positive teacher-student relationships boost student success. These relationships, of course, do not come about overnight—and as teachers noted in this latest study, a number of barriers often made it difficult for them to form strong relationships with students; negative student attitudes, time limitations, and large class sizes top the list. Elementary school teachers also report having stronger relationships with students than high school teachers, which is not surprising given that secondary teachers usually interact with far more students throughout the school day than do elementary teachers.

Yet being curious about our students appears to be a good starting point for building relationships with them. Our book, Building a Curious School, provides a simple tool: an interest inventory on p. 159 that you can use with your students (in any grade level or subject area) to get to know them better. It’s worth noting that the tool isn’t designed to reveal what students are passionate about—which tends to be a bit grandiose and off-putting for many students—but rather to help you (and your students) better understand their interests, which, in itself, is a good way to build any relationship. Here are a few examples:

  • What subjects or classes do you most enjoy in school?
  • What was the last thing you felt curious enough about to investigate on your own?
  • If you could ask a remarkable person for advice, who would it be? What would you ask?

Learning students’ answers to questions like these can serve the practical classroom purpose of helping you create more engaging projects, writing assignments, and explorations to tap into and cultivate student interests.

At the same time, demonstrating curiosity about your students can be the start of beautiful relationships. It shows students you care enough about them to get to know them a little better and after all, as the saying goes, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.



Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. A former high school teacher and college instructor, he is the author/coauthor of Learning That Sticks, Building a Curious School, and Tools for Igniting Curiosity: Classroom-Ready Techniques for Increasing Engagement and Inspiring the Love of Learning, among other publications.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.