One Tool Short
In the middle of a geometry lesson, Marie Lewis showed her students an angle bisecting two parallel lines. Before she even asked them, she knew they wouldn’t be able to calculate the angle, because they didn’t have the tool they needed.

Then she introduced the tool, an auxiliary line. Bingo.

Why didn’t she just teach them the auxiliary line and show them how to use it first? The answer is the title of this blog post: “huh?” She was creating a sense of confusion in her students, a sense that they HAD to learn something new if they were to solve this problem.

That “huh” state of mind—whether it comes in the form of mild confusion, anticipation, or curiosity—is a great tool for engaging the students in your classroom. And there are many tricks for stimulating the state. Here is one I enjoyed seeing in Ashley Hutchinson’s room.

Graffiti Walk
Hutchinson wanted to introduce her AP English students to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism. Rather than starting with the obvious PowerPoint presentation of historical data, or a textbook biography, she decided to spark curiosity and anticipation using the Graffiti Walk, an idea she stole from fellow English teacher Karen Durham.

On eight posters, she wrote intriguing quotes from Emerson essays. She then sent groups of three to the posters she had hung around the room and asked them to respond to the quotes by evaluating their truth, relating to them, or analyzing their meaning. After they had visited each poster, students chose their favorite quote and discussed it with others who had selected the same poster. They read what their peers had written, clarified their ideas, and related the quote to their own lives. And some of them, discovering they had misinterpreted meanings, changed their minds and adopted other posters.

At the end of the lesson, students already knew a lot about the ideas of Emerson and transcendentalism—and they already had a connection with them—but perhaps more importantly, their curiosity about the person and philosophy they had been interpreting was kindled—their brains were on and they were ready to learn.

Other Uses
I imagine this sort of activity has uses in other disciplines. For example, in a history or art history class, students could move around the room looking at and responding to works of art and architecture from a given era as a way of sparking curiosity about the significant characteristics of that era.

I would love to hear your ideas for creating a “huh?” state of mind. E-mail them to me at

Information on “Arousal States for Learning” are summarized from Eric Jensen’s Tools for Engagement (2003) in
North Carolina Teacher Academy. Mindful Instruction: Using Brain Research to Differentiate Classroom Instruction.” Morrisville, NC, 2009.

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