The question we asked ourselves—In what ways might question sense be integral to curiosity and inventiveness?—stimulated connections that mirrored mental images generated from perceptions of our experience, blended with extant and emergent understandings (Brogaad & Gatzia, 2017; Brown, 2016). The process has been analogous to seeing beyond what is known into a world of imagination and speculative possibilities (Jackson & Cole, 2020; Pendelton-Julian, 2020).

Imagination bespeaks cognitive processes and creativity and a focus on innovative action (Gomeseria, 2020); these are synergistic partners, with plausibility being the link between them. Ensuing dialogues are generated through questions that give expression to different voices as well as shared understandings and speculative possibilities (Fisher, 2013). While the questions asked by people count most (Chin & Osbourne, 2008), teachers often ask questions and answer them before people have had time to construct answers (Cotton, 1998; Ho, 2005). This is strange, considering the curiosity bug that provokes young children to ask hundreds of factual, imaginative, and creative questions a day (Birbili, 2017).

The landscape in many OECD countries is shrouded in tightly defined curriculum scripts, backed up by standardized testing, which has led to a narrowing of curricula (Elefante, 2021) and much teaching to tests (Popham, 2001). Learning outcomes in different schools and educational jurisdictions have been compared, indicating that situational, circumstantial, and cultural issues have been downplayed (Aoki, 1993) and the capacity for improvisation has been circumscribed (Corbert, 2016). Yet, if curriculum design and implementation were patterned around questions, then the expression of curiosity might be encouraged (Freestone & Mason, 2019, 2022). To enact such a proposition with confidence, an understanding, or at least a view, of question sense and its implications is required.

Curious sense

Questions are at the heart of intelligence (Schank, 1991). They drive thinking and innovation (Bouygues, 2019; Chappel et al., 2008; Classroom Nook, 2020; Doherty, 2018; Gregersen, 2018; Ram, 1991; Sanitt, 2018; Thomas & Brown, 2011). The questions that are posed reflect intentions and expectations and represent a complex fusion of cultural influences, reasoning, and social interaction (Altarriba, 1993; Bender & Beller, 2013). A curious sense is enabled that goes beyond making meaning to exploring the mysterious across the gamut of human knowledge and experience.

A central intent is to perceive and construct connections that have value (Odden & Russ, 2018). In the process, patterns of sense float across the template of human consciousness as non-observable, silent inner speech, which argues for emerging theories of understanding and possibilities for action (Barrett & Magee, 1978), with an inherent complexity seldom satisfied by investigating narrow or detached sets of variables. The whole is enhanced when people are engaged in creative learning communities (Eteläpelto & Lahti, 2008), especially where improvisation and innovation prevail (Corbett et al., 2016). The diversity of sense-making engendered reflects personal perceptions intertwined with the ecology of the extant connections emanating from previous experience.

The process is integral to knowledge acquisition and knowledge building, as well as to developing imaginative and creative thoughts and practices (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2014; Kaba & Ramaiah, 2019; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2006). That said, two caveats need to be made.

  • No two people formulate the same patterns of thought, even when they have had similar or identical experiences. They may arrive at shared understandings, but they get there by different routes (Siegel, 2020).

  • People do not act as if they are the same all through. They have learning preferences, social-emotional affinities, and unique profiles of capability across different fields of intelligence (Cherry, 2019; Gardner, 1993).

Depending upon context and purpose, the questions posed may demand varying combinations of cognitive reasoning, intuitive association, and emotional thoughtfulness. A curious sense is evoked that is broad in perspective and reach, often going beyond narrow analyses of variables or comparative investigations (Khan & Mason, 2019; Mason et al., 2016). Depending upon need and circumstance, inquiries may need to encompass the following (Madsbjerg, 2017):

  • culture and ethos from a holistic perspective, not just isolated bits and pieces

  • depth and subtlety in information, not simplistic or thin data

  • lifeworld issues and situations, not a detached smorgasbord of matters

  • innovation and improvisation, not just an assemblage ideas and practices

  • vision and forward thinking, not just a search for reputable destinations

While some aspects of knowledge may be a priori (Kitcher, 1980), understanding and appreciation emanate from the complexities of experience and the capacity to interpret them in meaningful and coherent ways (Reid et al., 2005; Strawson, 1994). The whole is temporal, with wisdom becoming more sophisticated and nuanced as experience unfolds through a life-long enactment of curiosity (Jakubik, 2020; Lee, 2014; McCormack & Hoerl, 2017).

In recent times, much talk has focused on the need to balance knowledge construction with knowledge creation (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2014; Gutiérrez-Braojos et al., 2019; Selvi, 2012; Tsoukas & Mylonopoulos, 2004). Personal knowledge is an ever-changing body of understanding (Polanyi, 1962), and practical know-how is borne out of questions that are either explicitly stated or implicit in the recesses of the mind. Understandings may be tacit, even silent, or declarative if they have percolated through established and recognizable procedures (Nash & Collins, 2006; Nickols, 1999).

The development of tacit knowledge is steeped in sense-making unencumbered by established traditions or the requirement of justification (Popper, 1959) or the need to meet the challenge of adequacy (Webber, 1994). Instead, questions can be addressed, and ideas explored, without undue restriction, while still reaching out over the reservoir of previous and emerging experience (D’Eredita & Barreto, 2006). All of this is intermeshed with the differing life worlds of individuals, groups of people, and communities (Jashapara, 2007).

Questions and curiosity beget each other (Delgado, 2019; Minigan, 2017). To this end, two broad strategies that provoke question sense stand out from a myriad of possibilities. They are wonderment questions (Aquiar et al., 2010; Perin, 2011), which expand thinking, and vexing questions (Odden & Russ, 2019b) which explore dissonance. Why? Because when applied, especially in combination, they fuel debate in the mind, and their interaction incites a sense of playfulness through which extant horizons and new ones can be explored (OECD, 2019). Together, they craft a fertile agency for sense-making and networking experience (Bateson & Nettle, 2014).

The process of making connections can be pleasurable or disturbing when things do not seem to fit or varying degrees of contradiction emerge (Perlovsky, 2010). Synchronicity or the lack of it may percolate to the fore (Moroney, 2020). The critical and creative thinking spawned energizes conversations of mind. Critical analyses tend to bring thoughts together and yield patterns or solutions, whereas creative thinking processes seek to explode or diverge thinking into previously unforeseen realms of possibility (Luenendonk, 2019). When the two processes engage, a dialect of tension is evoked through which imaginative thinking and innovative ideas can be refined or generated afresh (Bailin, 1987; Bogler, 2018).

Conversations of mind are often transient, with emerging knowledge and experience precipitating review, even wholescale transformation. Within this milieu, a key challenge is to generate a balance between simplicity and complexity (Rousi & Silvennoinen, 2018). Figure 1 outlines interacting agents involved in the process.

  • Questions that embrace foci typified by the surrounding cluster of words

  • Experiences that are characterized by the surrounding array of words

  • Connections that generate propositions and possibilities, such as those identified in the figure

Figure 1.
figure 1

Agents of curious inquiry

Ongoing discourse is provoked by dynamic interaction between personal and situated catalysts as well as rational thoughts and imaginative possibilities generated through critical and creative thinking. Existing harmonies may be enriched, dissonances resolved, uncertainties revealed, and possibilities discovered, often through thinking intuitively, not necessarily by means of rational analysis (Maitlis et al., 2013). A blend of cognitive, social, and emotional issues come into contention, with flux and disorder often outweighing ordered relations.

Over time, several connections may come together to form a curious-concatenate—that is, a unity of thought analogous to creating order out of disorder in biological systems (Schneider & Kay, 1995). These curious-concatenates are not simple groupings or associations. They are created through intention and perceived value, and thereby reflect underlying motivations in the lifeworld. The combinations are continually being expanded and refined, dissolved, or consumed into something else, or transformed, as new possibilities or disturbing contradictions are revealed (Barrett & Satpute, 2013). Indeed, if chaos theory is to be believed, volatility may be more prevalent than ordered relations (Sutter, 2019).

Curious understanding

Curious-concatenates represent a blending of space relations in the mind (Balkenius & Gӓrdenfors, 2016), around which new understandings of existing ways of thinking as well as original ideas and practices can grow (Joy et al., 2009; Ritchie, & Carlson, 2016). They can be envisioned as combinations of signal spaces derived from perceptions of experience, coming together to form a coherent mental picture (Fauconnier & Turner, 1998, 2002). Formulating them is analogous to putting a frame around a cluster of sense that has personal value (Klein et al., 2007). These constructions are often symbolized metaphorically in combinations of words or visualizations that are not literal (Barnden, 2005; Grady, 2005; Paivio, 1986).

The coming together forms a meld of conceived spaces that does not have to include all the relevant spaces. Instead, a curious-concatenate represents the best fit in a moment of time (Brandt & Brandt, 2005). Comparisons, juxtapositions, and integrations of signal spaces may create different degrees of connectedness (Figure 2). These include:

  • associated spaces that loosely link synergistic connections

  • relational spaces that represent interdependent relations

  • integrated spaces that signify a merging of complex relations

Figure 2.
figure 2

Growing connectedness

Curious-concatenates are temporary loci of knowing oscillating between relative order and disorder (Introna, 2019). As experience unfolds, the mental discourse incites continual movement between tentative propositional thoughts and emerging insights (Vygotshy, 1978). A shifting mass of possibility, of certainty intermingled with uncertainty, and of organized chaos prevails. Continual framing and reframing of the substance of an inquiry and perceptions of its context powers the enterprise (Gurteen, 2018; Kaufman et al., 2003). When different frames are applied to the same material, the mental picture often changes, even to the point of being transformed (Coulson, 2001; Purdy et al., 2017).

Construction of a curious-concatenate can generate positive and negative inferences and consequences for the rest of a person’s mental networks. Predictable value is a key determinant in the ongoing mental dialogue (Wiggins, 2020). An aspect or a group of aspects from one curious-concatenate may be incorporated or absorbed into a different one to enhance, refine, or transform existing thoughts; for example, juxtaposing the imagery of waves crashing onto cliffs with that of a violent storm. The degree of relevance of the incorporated aspect or aspects can vary from being related to interrelated to embodied to amalgamated (Figure 3).

Figure 3.
figure 3

Growing curious-concatenates. Note: An aspect may be a single signal of consciousness or a combination of signals analogous to a packet.

Changing patterns of thought embodied in dynamic growth within and between curious-concatenates differs from the evolution of mental schema. Schemas specify rules of inference, describe theories, and give adequacy conditions for definitions of truth (Corcoran & Hamid, 2016). They develop through a process of assimilation and accommodation into existing internal mental structures (Huitt & Humme, 2003; Inhelder & Piaget, 1958). Indeed, established schema can influence, sometimes hamper, the uptake of new information, such as when existing stereotypes or prejudices limit or bias mental dialogue, making preexisting thoughts appear more believable than alternative perceptions of experience (Tuckey & Brewer, 2003).

Curious-concatenates are flexible constructions that look toward what is, what is next, what might be, what could be, and what should be (Cooperrider, 2016; Shuayb et al., 2009; Stavros et al., 2018), as distinct from integrating understandings into existing mental structures. The everyday-ness of the connections implies a search for understanding that informs action, rather than pursuit of mental assimilation or accommodation. The tenor focuses on phenomena in life experience, with less emphasis on psychological maturation.

An ambiance of searching for connectedness is supported by brain-based research that indicates that different curious-concatenates would likely be networked and interact in dynamic ways across the template of human consciousness (Mišic & Sporns, 2016; Sporns, 2010, 2019). A growing body of evidence also suggests that networks of simple and complex patterns of thought are exclusive to each person (Konovalov & Krajbich, 2018; Tompson et al., 2018). The neuronal dynamics create interconnections between elements that vary in time, space, and strength, and in the diversity and depth of relations perceived or formulated.

The networking of perceptual, conceptual, or emotional signals oscillates between relative order and disorder (Mills et al., 2010). Plausibility may be grounded by simply “being in it”, through deliberate inquiries, by attempting to express intelligence in representational forms, or through individual and collective reflection, or combinations of these. The stimulus to do so may emanate from a sense of necessity, obligation, possibility, and opportunity (De Luca Picione et al., 2016). Fertile grounds for the enactment of question sense are generated, through which imagination and inventiveness can gain expression (Jarche, 2014; Sawyer & Obeid, 2017).

These dynamics are equally true in face-to-face situations or online in the digital world. However, evidence that online dialogues can be superficial and lacking in meaningful social interaction is a red flag (Bhattacharjee, 2019; Chesak, 2018; Wilmer et al., 2017). In either circumstance—face-to-face or remote conversations—working together collaboratively adds insight, depth, and nuance to sense-making (Namvar et al., 2018).

Curious inventiveness

Generic generative questions (GGQs), such as those in Table 1, direct intention within an inquiry. Their associated consequent questions (CQs) translate selected GGQs into the content of inquiries in ways that can be investigated, and pointed questions (PQs) explore specific contextual issues (Freestone, 2018; Freestone & Mason, 2019, 2022). The set of GGQs outlined in Table 1 expands those articulated by the International Baccalaureate (IBO) in 2000.

Table 1 Generic generative questions

GGQs, CQs, and PQs represent a layered set of question frames that aid the construction purposeful inquiries (Figure 4). They provide a playground for the performance of question sense. Questioning processes are typically employed, but they are different from questions in kind and purpose. They function as tactical tools that enact investigations emanating from the questions posed.

Figure 4
figure 4

Purposeful inquiries (From Freestone & Mason, 2021)

Most inquires begin with an appraisal of the situation. Once the key features of the context are clear, an iterative sequence of GGQs to CQs to PQs, or similar, promotes thinking, exploration, investigation, and action appropriate to the stage the inquiry has reached. They facilitate the strategic generation of transformative ideas, hypothetical possibilities, and evaluative procedures (Corley & Rauscher, 2013). The reflective thinking evoked goes beyond entanglement with experience or inquiry to grapple with pragmatic problems of the moment (Chater & Loewenstein, 2016; Klein & Moon, 2006; Turnbull, 2004). The unfolding of questions embodies a cognitive search to make connections (Chiu & Linn, 2013; Maloney, 2015), an argumentative dialogue to construct and critique explanations (Berland & Reiser, 2011; Ford, 2012), and framing to synthesise thinking with prior knowledge and extant personal understanding (Danielak et al., 2014; Kapon, 2016).

As an inquiry progresses, initial questions are often revisited. These recurrences may have a puzzling dimension that is self-motivating and keeps sense-making going (Jaber & Hammer, 2016; Odden & Russ, 2018, 2019a, 2019b). Playful dialogue between established and alternative perceptions of experience, as well as different conceptualizations, mental images, and imaginative possibilities. often ensues (Brogaard & Gatzia, 2017; Donaldson, 2010; Gideonse, 2019; Wegerif, 2007). Associations and structures are synthesised (Linn, 2000), which connects new ideas to established ones by means of coherent argument (Baxter & Glaser, 1998; Kastens & Manduca, 2012; Nichols & Sugrue, 1999; Shepard, 2000). A kaleidoscope of intradisciplinary, multi-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and trans-disciplinary connections is often revealed (Jenseniu, 2012). With shifting associations between past and present understandings, alluding to absence as much as to prevailing curious-concatenates or those in a state of synthesis (Introna, 2018).

If questions are the lifeblood of the mind, in what ways might they provoke inventiveness? The double diamond design process (Service Design Academy, 2021) provides a generic means that is applicable to diverse lifeworld contexts. Sequential application of the question frames pattern in Figure 4 to evolving cycles labeled “discovery and design” and “develop and enact” provides a flexible yet structured means to add sophistication, direction, and purposefulness to inquiries (Figure 5).

Figure 5
figure 5

Questions to inventive action

The two diamond shapes represent iterative cycles that describe ways people can engage in pursuit of imaginative and inventive action. In the center of each diamond is an engine room of question-led inquiry—with extant or emerging curious-concatenates becoming engaged in processes aimed at generating order out disorder, and thereby synthesizing wise, nuanced, and practicable responses to challenges. The kindling of intellectual power, resourcefulness, imagination, and creativity helps to bring the best of what could be and what should be into action.

The link between the two cycles in Figure 5 is characterized by the evolution of strategic designs that represent situated syntheses of what is desired and possible in addressing diverse lifeworld challenges. A touchstone is reached when imaginative ideas are ready to be transformed into inventive action. Both cycles bespeak ideation implicit in co-design and co-construction (Gomez, 2020; Metz, 2015; Zamenopoulus & Alexiou, 2018), with ongoing mental dialogue around curious-concatenates integral to the process. Movement through a development and design mindset to one of develop and enact enhances the expression of human resourcefulness and ingenuity. In the process, curious-concatenates migrate from ideas of mind to the realms of practicability.

Curious experience

Conceptions of curriculum have taken many forms, often drawing on the seminal work of people such as Tyler (1949), Taba (1962), Stenhouse (1975), and Skilbeck (1984), and more recently, outcomes-based education (Malan, 2000). A curriculum design we have used with schools to encourage the development of curious experiences from kindergarten to year 8 is depicted in Figure 6.

Figure 6.
figure 6

Question-based curriculum design (Created by Freestone)

With the ideas expressed in this paper in mind, could a question-based curriculum be devised around this design? Table 2 provides a snapshot of how this might be articulated. In this way, rich learning could be promoted, without the ill-advised loss of learning deemed important. This might enhance the capacity of schools and teachers to personalize learning and customize programs to the needs and aspirations of communities (Aoki, 1993; Corbett et al., 2016)—especially if what learners need to encounter and learn is seen from a conceptual perspective (Erickson, 2014), not one of content prescription.

Table 2. Question-based curriculum


The ideas discussed in this article might advance the capacity of people and communities to engage in question-led inquiries. In so doing, the exercise of question sense might enhance the scope, depth, and situated nuance of the thoughts and actions they develop. A gateway to personalize and customize inquiries would be created, with a questions ethos energizing the natural attitude of curiosity inherent in all of us. Imagination, creativity, and inventiveness would be encouraged and likely flourish.

Curious questions, curious-concatenates, question-based experiences, and strategic inventiveness represent a template of question-sense issues that may enrich the development and enactment of inquiries as well as the construction and implementation of curricula. We believe the package is applicable at all levels of education and in a broad range of community-based enterprises. The structure and scaffolding of digital resources and online systems might also benefit.