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.