Powerful Provocations for Learning: Sparking curiosity and increasing engagement

Powerful learning begins with the perfect provocation. Creating, refining and skilfully presenting the perfect provocation is an essential capability for teachers hoping to engage their class in rich dialogue. Claims that the percentage of students engaged by their learning declines from 75 percent in fifth grade to 32 percent by eleventh grade suggests a need for a more provocative environment.

A well-crafted provocation should encourage curiosity. Perhaps it has a certain degree of ambiguity such that it demands clarification. Maybe it challenges existing knowledge or beliefs in a way that guides the learner towards a fresh perspective. When we unlock the curiosity of our learners in these ways and provide them with opportunities to engage in inquiry to satisfy their curiosity, we increase learner agency. Matthias Gruber describes the effect that curiosity has on learning; “Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it,”. A powerful provocation is the seed for such a vortex.

The right provocation sparks questions and invites exploration. Entering a new city for the first time, the traveller experiences varying degrees of cognitive disconnect. There are some vistas which make sense and others which do not fit with any previous experience. There are new sights, and smells and sounds and while at first, the sensation may be overwhelming, the minds innate desire to explore soon takes over. We wander through the city, awash with questions and wonderings. What is around that corner? What are these people doing and why? What is that sound I hear in the distance? We may not be able to take our class to a new city each day, but we can create experiences which provoke a similar reaction. We can seek to provoke a sense of wonder and a desire to explore.

A powerful provocation should challenge our paradigms. We become readily set in our beliefs. We have knowledge that we believe to be true that goes unquestioned until a provocation is encountered that causes us to doubt what we were once certain of. Great art seems to achieve this goal almost effortlessly. Think of the painter who challenges us with a piece that forces us to review our reality from a new perspective. Or the poet, whose subtle choice of phrasing opens our mind to a new interpretation of stories that we once found truth in.

Julie is an exceptional teacher who routinely provokes her students to think, wonder, question and explore. Her class has started reading “Young Dark Emu”, a powerfully provocative book by Bruce Pascoe. By choosing to read this with her class of fifth graders, Julie has set up the possibility for an engaging lesson, but choosing the right book is only the start of the process. Looking for a powerful way to start the learning journey with her class, Julie sought to find the right provocation. Her Year Five teaching team utilises a ‘teaching for understanding’ approach to planning. An important part of this process is the establishment of a Generative Topic that serves to guide the teams teaching towards learning that matters. A generative topic as the name implies should generate opportunities for rich, broad learning around significant topics. This term, Julie’s team is exploring “Perspective” as their generative topic. The hope is that reading “Young Dark Emu” will invite a different way of seeing. Julie describes how she used the book to achieve this goal.

I was introducing the book Young Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and we were looking at the first paragraph where he explains that in European astronomy, they look at the constellations to tell the stories, whereas the Aboriginal people look at the darkness between the stars to tell the stories. The outline of the dark emu in the night sky was on the opposite page. The paragraph ended with the sentence – “It’s a different way of seeing”.

Source - Young Dark Emu

Source - Young Dark Emu

This was what Julie needed to spark the curiosity of her class, a powerful provocation to see things differently. An invitation to engage with a reading of the book as a doorway to a new perspective. A chance to see history through a new lens and to challenge preconceived ideas of how the world is to be interpreted.

‘Throughout history, humans have looked to the night sky to explain their existence, but the conclusions peoples draw from the same sky can be remarkably different. European astronomy uses constellations of stars to tell a story, but sometimes Aboriginal Australia uses the darkness between the stars. Dark Emu is a shape in the dark areas between the stars of the Milky Way. It’s a different way of seeing’. Young Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

The power of that one sentence sparked so much discussion about perspectives. Students made so many connections with the author’s message and the analogy given made this very clear to them. They spoke about why that paragraph is at the front of the book when considering their predictions of the content. This really highlighted to me the power of a good question or statement in provoking so much rich discussion.

Stellina teaches Kindergarten. She understands that the stimulus materials she chooses and the environment of her classroom acts as the third teacher. With this in mind, Stellina crafts collections of materials which invite her students to explore, wonder, engage and question. Stellina utilises her creativity and understanding of the curriculum to arrange collections that are likely to lead her learners towards the understanding she knows they need. The image below and the accompanying provocations were designed to engage young learners in a mathematical inquiry linked to the concept of number. Enticingly presented, the collection invites the learner to come and explore, to play and make connections. Having unlocked her learners’ curiosity, Stellina now artfully observes how they interact with the collection and decides when and how to interact with them so as to nudge them in the desired direction.


Both of these examples demonstrate the potential of a powerful provocation. They also reveal the added value that a great teacher brings to a provocative stimulus. Julie knew how to manage the conversation. She understood the potential in the text and utilised it as a catalyst for conversation. The culture of her classroom supports debate and her students feel safe contributing ideas. Julie knows when to be the quiet one in the classroom, and when to gently guide the conversation towards an alternate perspective. Stellina creates opportunities for her students to explore and in doing so, makes space for her to become an observer of her students in the act of learning. When she does inject herself into the learning, her actions are well-timed and strategic. Quality learning requires the right provocation and a teacher who can maximise its potential.

How will you provoke your learners? What provocation will you deploy, and how will you maximise its possibility?

By Nigel Coutts