A good way of starting a lesson or project is to provide a hook to grab the students' attention and to engage them in the learning. I call this using an activator or motivator. Elsewhere you may see such a hook referred to as a provocation, especially in relation to developing the spirit of inquiry in students. Good activators provoke students' thinking, reactions and responses. They incite engagement and feed motivation.

Here we look at what makes good activators /hooks, and provide examples for teachers to use. These same activators are as valid for use with teachers in workshops and other forms of collaborative learning.

What makes a good activator?

  • Will the activator excite/engage the learners and ‘hook’ them into learning?

  • Might the activator ignite curiosity?

  • What questions is the activator likely to generate?

  • Does it build on prior learning?

  • Will the activator leave a lasting impression?

  • Is there a degree of complexity?

  • Will the activator encourage debate about different viewpoints?

  • Might it begin a conversation?

  • To what extent will the activator ignite and extend thinking?

  • Is it open-ended and does it have multiple entry points?

  • Is it possible to revisit the activator later on in the learning, maybe in the reflection?

  • Does the activator relate to real life/their world?

  • How does the activator lead into the learning engagements

  • Does this activator elicit feelings and encourage affective learning?

Examples of activators


Photographs have the ability to engage feelings, change perception and develop thinking.

What do you see? What questions does this photograph evoke? What would you like to ask person in the photograph?

Strategies you could use with photographs include:

See, Think, Wonder

See, Hear, Feel


Carefully selected, videos can be a great way of starting a conversation, engaging emotions and developing both cognitive and affective learning. They can be an excellent stimuli.

Choose short videos, and especially ones where there is a cliff-hanger, which raises issues without trying to answer them. They should excite curiosity and inquiry and not just provide narratives and viewpoints.

Use open-ended guided questions to scaffold the learning, such as:

  • How did this make you feel?
  • To what extent did it confirm or challenge your views?
  • Which questions does it leave you with?
  • What do you wish to inquire into and find out about as a result of watching the video? How will you go about your inquiry?
  • What is the view of knowledge being portrayed? How do the people in the video know what is true (experience, logic, intuition or revelation)? How do they make decisions?

I use this video when introducing international mindedness.

This Fibonacci video provides a good motivator for understanding patterns and their connection to real-life:


Quotes resonate with people. They have the ability to become mantras for the way we live our lives. Words can inspire and motivate. Metaphors can make ideas compelling.

By providing quotations on a specific theme participants are asked to choose the one which most resonates with them. It encourages them to engage with a topic but in a third person way. By asking them how the quotation resonates with them it also offers an opportunity for people to share personal stories and thus create 'buy in'.

Useful strategies include:

Quotes that speak to me

Six word memoir

Tweet it



Being provocative can, if chosen well, engage both heart and mind in debate and discord!

Sometimes it is a matter of presenting different perspectives to start thinking. At other times it could be helpful to create discussion by presenting a provocative point of view and asking for responses.

Here I present a provocative video, a poster and article to provide examples. However, each subject will have its own.

It needn't be a Eurocentric world!

Check out Worldmapper - mapping your world as you've never seen it before and this article: The Upsidedown Map


From weird to everyday objects, artefacts are a sure way to trigger curiosity.

Useful strategies include:

  • Questioning the object - “What am I? What am I used for? Who might need me?)
  • Asking students / teachers to choose an artefact which speaks to them on a given subject. See the protocol Artifact - Storytelling. This tool encourages story telling - individual or organizational stories.By encouraging people to tell their stories about an issue which you wish to discuss and inquire into you automatically gain 'buy in' from them. There can be a high level of emotional resonance.

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