September 19th, 2012

Cultivating Curiosity in Our Students as a Catalyst for Learning


There’s not much pedagogical literature on the topic of curiosity. In fact the article referenced here is the only piece I can remember seeing on the subject, which is a bit surprising because curiosity does play an important role in learning. One of the definitions offered in the article explains how the two relate. “Curiosity, a state of arousal involving exploratory behavior, leads to thinking and thinking culminates in learning.” (p. 53)

Curiosity is the quest for new ideas and information. Folks who are curious aren’t satisfied with what they already know or have figured out. They go after what they don’t know or can’t understand—and that missing information can become a driving need to find out. “Curiosity’s most distinguishing characteristic is its open willingness to explore….” (p. 55)

Curiosity connects with learning in two important ways. It is a source of motivation, as these descriptions indicate, and it’s powered by questions. Small children begin life intensely curious about everything and they express their curiosity with questions—enough questions to wear out even the most dedicated parent. “What makes the car work?” “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do the chipmunks sleep at night?” But that level of curiosity doesn’t last, which brings us back to education. “Inherently, we are curious from the very beginning. Although in time, education—with its focus on the delivery of knowledge, being content versus thinking driven—causes questions to recede in favor of answers.” (p. 56)

These authors think that our focus on answers and critical, competitive learning environments have a dampening effect on curiosity. For students (maybe teachers, sometimes?) questions have come to “insinuate a lack of intelligence, whereas quick answers infer the opposite.” (p. 56) Does an emphasis on critical thinking inhibit students from asking questions they worry may not be important or good enough to ask?

How do we cultivate curiosity in our students? We can start by being openly curious ourselves, asking questions of our content, not questions we can already answer, but honest queries that we’d like to be able to answer. Can we be curious about what our students know? I was talking with a graduate student recently and I noticed a pirate patch on his book bag. “What’s with the patch?” I asked. “Oh, pirates are just my thing.” “I don’t know much of anything about pirates,” I confessed. He shared several intriguing details, the most interesting being, “I start my classes by telling students stories about pirates.” His content area? Computer programming.

The authors think curiosity is cultivated by particular kinds of classroom environments. They describe places where “curiosity flourishes” as being open places “in which the dialogue, the questioning is allowed to move in any direction, driven by students’ questioning.” (p. 57) It’s a matter of following lines of inquiry where they lead rather than being dictated by the teacher’s plan for the day or the confines of the content to be covered that class period. It may be unrealistic to imagine teaching every day like this, but if a student does ask an interesting question, one voiced out of curiosity, perhaps it’s wise to take the time to see where that question might lead.

In the children’s story, curiosity killed the cat. Most of our students don’t have that worry. They are more threatened by not having enough curiosity. My old cat nonchalantly naps through just about everything these days, unless there’s a something small and furry scurrying about the house. Then he’s up, keenly interested in what it was and where it went. We need to find and strategically locate whatever it is that wakes up students’ latent curiosity. After all, curiosity is what makes learning so much fun. To happen onto something that raises questions, to want to find the answers, to pursue the missing information, to find or figure out what you didn’t know, that’s a quest that culminates with a satisfied smile and a commitment to other questions and more learning. Isn’t curiosity what makes us fall in love with learning?

Reference: Hill, M. E. and McGinnis, J. (2007). The curiosity in marketing thinking. Journal of Marketing Education, 29 (1), 52-62.

  • Marae Bailey

    We can also ask questions about the content to make students think critically. Say I'm doing a freshman comp class, and we are discussing comma rules (boring). I might go through and put commas in all the wrong places and ask the class, "Why is this sentence wrong?" They'll reply, "It's missing the second comma after the parenthetical element." My next question: "Yes, but why is it so important to have a comma there?" They have to think about this one–why the rule exists, possible consequences of ignoring it, loss of clarity, etc. I find students in this atmosphere are much more comfortable asking me why questions as well, which leads to better understanding.

  • Doug Garfield

    You've got to be kidding me right? Curiosity? This is the only article? Try John Keller's work on ARCS (motivational design), only 30+ years of research on student motivation. How about the expectancy-value theory of motivation? Curiosity, what is relevant to us?

  • aramirez01

    Maybe for us who teach science it's a bit different. Asking questions is a significant part of student participation, particularly during field experiences, experiments, and discussions. Rachel Carson defines the nature of human curiosity in "A Sense of Wonder" (1965), pointing out how we tend to lose it when exposed to rigid, stodgy education. The sense of wonder, the Ahh! when we marvel at something new, leads to asking What? How? When? an has a strong emotional basis. If we don't lose our sense of wonder we keep asking questions, searching for answers even if we know that there are more questions ahead. The curious state of arousal means excitement, an emotional driving force to find out more. We need to make our teaching and learning exciting, challenging, engaging… then we may see an increase in motivation.

  • Dr Paula Tomsett

    Dear Maryellen,
    Curiosity may have killed the cat – but satisfaction bought her/him back again, hence the need for nine lives.
    I like your article – I teach in an ESL environment where it is a challenge to engage students in conversation, let alone arouse their curiosity, so I have introduced field exercises where stduents go out into their envronment in pairs or groups of 3-4 and observe and record, and then analyse their observations after which they must report verbally to the class. This has been particularly successful with postgrads.

  • Thanks for this post. My curiosity is: what really triggers curiosity? Kieren Egan's ideas on 'imaginative education' and the use of storytelling, although mostly directed at the K-12 stage, are appealing to me. Your graduate student who brings up pirates in his computer programming class most likely invokes wonder among students by tickling their imagination! I am also trying to bring in the storytelling approach to my classes (so as to evoke curiosity!), but it seems to be an uphill task given that high ed pedagogy is more about 'mechanical' constructive alignment rather than drama and emotion! Amer Khan (Lecturer, Swinbune University of Technology, Malaysia)

  • Jonathan Simon

    I really enjoyed your article, Maryellen. As a counselor and instructor at a community college, I encourage students who are struggling with material in a class to organize what they do not understand by asking good questions (and writing them down) and then seeking the assistance they need. It also "embeds" permission to the student "not to know," to find ways of making themselves visible so that they can receive the support they need, and gives a focus that can help instill consistency in attending to the material in the first place. Fostering curiosity is a different perspective, I think, for many instructors.
    (Jonathan Simon, Moraine Valley Community College, Illinois)

  • By Baylis ?2

    Call it curiosity, or call what you will. Students need to have a need to know in order to become engaged in their own learning. That new learning occurs best when the learner ties new content or skills to already resident content or skills. The job of the instructor is to develop learning artifacts or situations that will draw the student into new learning. The instructor must also be cognizant of the fact that each learner will learn different things in different ways. I learned this first hand over the past three years. During this time span, I have had a series of traumatic brain incidents (brain tumor, stroke, series of rapid-fire tonic-clonic seizures, sensory auras and cross-sensory sensations [I see things I should be hearing or smelling, etc.] ) However, the largest change is a significant loss of analytic, deductive, quantitative and sequential thinking abilities. INow when faced when a problem or new situation, my first reaction is to think metaphorically or in terms of pictures. It is a brand new world for me. I now realize how foreign the world of analysis and synthesis is to some students. They are imminently capable of learning, but perhaps not in the way many instructors learn.

  • Jan

    Thanks for the article. I've been wrestling with a lack of curiosity on the part of my students for a while. They're anxious to answer questions, but seem astonishingly weak at asking good questions. In other words, I can guide them through an interesting learning experience, but without a guide, they stop using the skills we teach. I've recently been experimenting with making the act of asking questions a skill I cultivate in my classes. A few weeks ago, I described my efforts here:… . I'd be interested in feedback, especially since this topic seems to cross disciplinary lines.

  • Pingback: Curiosity & the Facial Hair of Emperor Wilhelm II « the Bok Blog()

  • Lo ka wing Luke

    The openness atmosphere in the classroom and the attitude of techer can encourage students' curosity.
    I Think, some basic requirements may help in cultivating a classroom with curious students
    – Leave more time for students' to ask question
    – start from teacher, to ask some stimulating, insigightful Qs that lead to more subsequent Qs
    – try to create a more free style in classroom, e.g. arrange seats in groups, provide snacks for rewards etc,

  • Pingback: Beyond Critical Thinking: Curious Questioning « the Bok Blog()

  • Pingback: Beyond Critical Thinking: Curious Questioning « the Bok Blog()

  • Douglas

    I am interested in deconstructing curiosity as a psychological aspect of student motivation. Is curiosity static or dynamic , or both, or neither. Is curiosity important in the motivational construct. Are curious people better or worse students?
    I would appreciate any articles or books that have delved into this. I do not believe that motivation and curiosity are one and the same. To be curious seems to me to motivate one to be like a detective: looking around corners because I want to know what's there, and why.
    Doug Evans
    Prince Mohammed University

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