How to inspire curiosity in students - and why you should

Despite being integral to education, curiosity can be a misunderstood concept, with the factors that drive us to bridge the gap between what we know and what we don’t know often seeming intangible and mysterious. But research is beginning to identify ways that teachers can inspire inquisitiveness. Chris Parr digs deeper
13th March 2020, 12:05am
In Search Of The Curious

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How to inspire curiosity in students - and why you should

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/how-inspire-curiosity-students-and-why-you-should

To be curious was for much of history not the done thing. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s curiosity unleashed evil into the world; in AD397, Saint Augustine wrote that God had “fashioned hell for the inquisitive” ; and in his 1819 poem Don Juan, Lord Byron writes “I loathe that low vice - curiosity”.

But in education, curiosity is pretty much essential. A recent paper published in Pediatric Research suggests that the more curious a child is, the more likely they are to perform better in school - regardless of their socioeconomic background (Shah et al, 2018). And this makes sense: surely, to want to learn, you have to be curious to know.

The trouble is, we don’t know that much about curiosity. And we know even less about how it might be utilised in the classroom. So where does that leave teachers?

A basic working definition of curiosity, and one that you will find in most dictionaries, is: “a desire to know more”. But when researching curiosity - for example, by trying to measure it, or to work out what triggers it - you need a fuller, more descriptive definition, and academics tend to disagree on what that should be.

“There is no universal agreement on what curiosity is,” explains Jamie Jirout, an assistant professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, US, and a curiosity expert. “It’s one of those tricky constructs in that everyone feels like they know what it means, but when you try to define it - especially in a way that allows you to develop measures of it - it gets much more complex.”

Mind the gap

She explains that this is because of the multidimensionality of curiosity. It is both a “stable characteristic of people”, meaning some are more likely to become curious about things than others (trait curiosity) but also “a state, where researchers can successfully manipulate curiosity in a situation across people, or when something happens that is unexpected” (state curiosity).

Matthias Gruber, a senior research fellow in Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, says we are still “at the very beginning” when it comes to building an evidence base of what curiosity is. There are “only a handful of neuroimaging experiments on curiosity and behavioural studies on curiosity-based memory”, for example.

Our understanding of how someone becomes curious is also pretty rudimentary.

“We are now trying to understand better what the factors are that elicit curiosity,” Gruber explains. “Importantly, since curiosity varies largely across people, researchers have started to investigate how trait curiosity impacts how we learn and search for information that we are curious about.”

Yet, while we are at the early stages of understanding both what curiosity is and how we can become more curious, that is not to say we know nothing. One fairly widely accepted element of curiosity is the “information-gap theory”, which says that when there is a gap in your knowledge, you become curious because you want to resolve that gap.

Jirout explains: “This is consistent with many more general theories in psychology, such as Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, in which children’s learning is driven by discrepancies between what children know and how they understand their world and new information they get from their environment.

“Children in this case would seek information to understand what happened in a way that fits their existing knowledge, or would change or add to their existing knowledge so that the new information would then make sense.”

This is seemingly good news for schools: the whole point of education is to expose and close information gaps. However, simply highlighting an information gap does not necessarily mean that every child will be curious in the classroom, or at least not to the same degree.

Jirout’s work posits that the information gap is the “driving force of why people become curious”, but she also reveals that people prefer different-sized gaps in their knowledge.

“Some children are curious when there is something they don’t know and have very little information about it, while others find this overwhelming and aren’t as likely to become curious,” she says. “Instead, they would be more likely to be curious when there is something they don’t know but they have some information about it already.”

In addition, some studies have found that curiosity can be associated with “unpleasant feelings related to not having information, or even anxiety”, Jirout reveals, while other research “has found that curiosity-related anticipation is similar to the reward anticipation experienced during activities like gambling”.

For a teacher trying to pitch difficulty levels in a classroom, and to stimulate curiosity, this is all very confusing, and clearly, a one-size-fits-all approach is a no-go. Things then get even more complex.

The elusive spark

Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology at Williams College in Massachusetts, US, and author of The Hungry Mind: the origins of curiosity in childhood, agrees that the information gap is central to how we understand curiosity. But she says it “is both an experience and a behaviour, and psychologists look at it both ways”.

“When you see something unexpected …two things happen,” she explains. “One is an experience and one is a behaviour. The experience is, ‘What’s that? I didn’t think that would happen.’ That’s the first trigger of curiosity - the feeling that something unexpected has happened. The second piece is, ‘I want to know more’, which may be followed by behaviour: something you do to try to satisfy that sense of arousal or uncertainty.”

Does this dual-dimension curiosity occur in every case where there is an information gap? You don’t have to be a researcher to know the answer to that: most teachers will have encountered children who simply do not engage with the topic they are covering. For example, a child might fizz with excitement in a science class, asking a hundred questions a minute, but appear completely disinterested when learning about the reign of Henry VIII in the following history lesson.

We don’t really know why one child’s curiosity may be sparked when another’s is not. But the researchers agree that this occurs.

“There is no panacea that makes all children interested in a specific subject,” says Kou Murayama, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Reading. “Students also vary in terms of what types of rewards they like. Some like positive feedback from teachers … whereas some others focus more on test scores.

“This means that, although a rewarding feeling, a competence feeling and a value belief are important to promote interest, different students have different pathways for them.”

Engel says one of the “traps” that teachers often fall into is thinking that they need to get “all kids to be curious about the thing that they want them to be curious about”.

As an example, she says: “You can’t get all kids to like geography. It’s more about helping every kid to find at least a few things that they feel curious about.”

Gruber explains that researchers are looking more deeply into why curiosity is selective and how we might get children to be curious about things that they have little interest in.

“There is very little evidence and research on how we can better foster curiosity,” he admits - but he cites one study that suggests that fostering curiosity at preschool age has a beneficial effect on the academic achievement of those children in primary school.

“An additional important societal finding in this study was that children from families with lower socioeconomic status benefited the most from curiosity fostering earlier in life,” he explains. “I think that this finding shows how important it is to start fostering curiosity early in life but continue to foster it throughout school and in adulthood. I think this is especially important in our rapidly changing society in which lifelong learning becomes so essential.”

What is “curiosity fostering” and how can teachers go about it? Jirout says that the question of how to promote curiosity is “probably what most of us researchers are interested in”.

She adds: “There is pretty consistent research showing that introducing uncertainty or ambiguity in a situation leads to more exploration and questioning, so this is a good starting point to think about how to promote curiosity in students.”

Enquire and experiment

However, she warns against just cultivating a “short-lived spark of curiosity”.

“We want children to develop a more general curiosity for learning,” she says. “In our research, we are exploring whether we can help children to develop more comfort with uncertainty as a way of developing more stable curiosity.

“For children who are less curious - in our work this means children who might be overwhelmed by too much uncertainty - teachers can provide more scaffolding to help guide them in finding the information they need to learn. But this is only beneficial to learning in school if the instructional context allows students to learn in a way that involves them finding information to address their curiosity, rather than just giving students information to memorise that isn’t contextualised in their knowledge gaps.”

According to Prachi Shah, an associate professor of paediatrics at the University of Michigan, US, and a paediatrician who has worked extensively on curiosity in children, recent research suggests that varied experiences are also associated with a higher expression of curiosity.

“Some children may be interested in stars and astronomy and some children may be interested in cooking,” she says. “Having a greater diversity of experiences within the classroom, or lesson plans that involve a diversity of interests, can [help lessons to] align with a child’s curiosity and allow them a place where they can find their own idiosyncratic fit between what’s being presented and what they want to know more about.”

Engel agrees: “You can plan activities that allow kids to ask questions, and enquire and experiment, and all of that is really good and important. Making sure there’s enough in the environment for children to be interested in, to be curious about - complex phenomena, things that are messy and mysterious - all of that is really important in a good classroom.”

She says it is just as vital, though, for teachers to allow themselves to be curious, and to confront things they don’t understand.

“Often, when I do workshops with educators, I start by getting them to think about what it is in their own lives they’re very curious about,” she explains. “Because we know that modelling curiosity is really important and has a huge impact on children’s behaviour, particularly in the domain of curiosity.

“Teachers think they have to know everything, but the opposite is true. They have to show how delightful it is to not know things and to find them out.”

While this is how we might foster curiosity, is it possible we could inadvertently do the opposite: could teaching practice put the flame of curiosity out? Definitely, says Engel.

“One of the great things about curiosity is, if you see something crawling out under the rock, and you’re given a chance to go pick up the rock and look closely at whatever crawled out, it feels really good. It’s very satisfying,” she says. “[But] then if the people around you [repeatedly] say, ‘Don’t do that’, then you’re prevented again and again from that satisfied feeling.

“The honest and sad truth is, by the time kids get to school, they’ve already either been encouraged to be curious or not. And some kids by the age of 4 will have already been encouraged to ask questions, to manipulate things, to find out things and to monitor their own satisfaction with their efforts, while others will not.”

Once those children are at school, Engel fears the system can stifle curiosity and that this can have long-term negative impacts.

“If you go through a school system that consistently depresses your curiosity or discourages it, or favours the right answer over finding new answers, we don’t know what the long-term impact is … or when does the door shut on the chance to revive curiosity in someone for whom it’s been discouraged? And I’d like to know the answer to that question,” she says.

Curiouser and curiouser

So, we know curiosity is important. We know that assuming every child will be as curious about a topic given the right stimulation is problematic. We know relying on information gaps alone to initiate curiosity is unlikely to yield positive results. And we know that we must be wary of turning curiosity off. In addition, we know we should not be making declarations about particular teaching strategies or approaches initiating more curiosity than others, as we simply don’t have any evidence that this is true.

Most important of all, though, we know that we need to know more about curiosity because it matters a great deal to learning. Fortunately, Jirout and her colleagues are on the case.

“There are a lot of researchers becoming interested in curiosity, and many of them are studying children, so I believe that in the coming years there will be important advances in what we know,” she says. “Research with adults using survey measures has produced pretty reliable evidence, but there is much less research on children, and those studies are not typically replicated.”

Importantly, many researchers are thinking about how to study curiosity in ways that will have useful implications for practice, such as in education, parenting and the design of toys and learning materials, Jirout adds.

“[The lab I work in] is beginning a project to collect data that can help us answer basic questions about what curiosity is and how it develops, but we are collecting those data in educational contexts and also collecting data about children’s educational experiences, so that our work can be useful for educational practice while also advancing our more basic understanding of curiosity,” she says.

Teachers will surely be interested to see the results. Or you might say, they will be curious to know more.

Chris Parr is a freelance writer

For references, see tes.com/magazine

This article originally appeared in the 13 March 2020 issue under the headline “In search of the curious”

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