Curiosity and Learning

Glenna Lykens, Head of Lower School
One of the characteristics often found in gifted children is a deep curiosity. Curiosity can be defined as the intense desire to explore novel, challenging, and uncertain events. Curious children are filled with wonder. An important benefit of being curious is that a person is very open-minded toward new ideas, interests, and adventures.
 
Dr. Todd Kashdan of George Mason University has done much research into the psychology and assessment of curiosity. He has created a Five-Dimensional Curiosity Scale and from the use of the scale identifies four types of curious people: The Fascinated, Problem Solvers, Empathizers, and Avoiders. The first three types embrace curiosity in positive ways, and schools need to help students cultivate those characteristics and ways to view the world.
 
Curious people ask many unprompted questions; examine and manipulate interesting images and objects; investigate how other people think, feel, and behave; take risks to acquire new experiences; and persist on challenging tasks. Parents and teachers need to find ways to guide and encourage those traits in children.
 
A measure of curiosity can be the number of curious questions that a child might ask. Curious questions are questions where a child wants to get new information about topics of interest. “May I sharpen my pencil?” is not curious. “How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly?” is clearly aimed at learning new information. Many people might assume that school is a place that guides children and encourages them to ask curious questions. Research does not always show that. Some studies found that children ask dozens of curious questions every hour at home. But in multiple observations across grade levels and in various classrooms, entire classes may only average up to three curious questions per hour. Why would this be? Teachers do not always purposefully create a culture of curiosity. They may be more focused on getting through content. They may not make time for questions. They may not tolerate questions that go on a tangent or were already asked. Other research has shown similar results in the workforce. Many adults do not report feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis and some feel barriers to asking more questions at work.
 
Why should parents and teachers care about developing curiosity in children? Curiosity and creatively are closely linked. Looking at the last thirty years, think of all the ways our lives have changed because of new technology, innovations, careers, and initiatives. Many of those began because of curious people working creatively. Curiosity can help avoid confirmation bias (looking for evidence to support our beliefs instead of being open to being wrong). Curiosity can also help us avoid stereotyping people and making broad judgments. People can work together more effectively when they can put themselves in one another’s shoes and take an interest in each other’s ideas. All of these can lead to an open and growth mindset. Consistently acting on curious feelings can help expand knowledge, build competencies, strengthen social relationships, and increase intellectual and creative capacities.
 
At Sycamore School, teachers understand the importance of creating a culture of curiosity. First, the classrooms feel safe for children to risk asking questions. Teachers ensure that their responses to questions do not stifle curiosity. They model asking curious questions and let students see that not all questions can be answered easily. Many high-level questions lead to more questions. A culture that embraces curiosity helps challenge all students to grow as learners. Facing that challenge helps build resilience and teaches students to face adversity and continue searching for answers. Will Richardson is an educator and author who advocates for integrating technology in learning. He stated, “I am not sure of the answers, but I am trying to ask better questions.”  Learning to ask better questions can lead to new ideas.
 
Another way teachers at Sycamore help students develop curiosity is to find ways to engage them in their own learning. Stimulating classroom activities offer students novelty, complexity, and choice. Students receive time to work on areas of interest and time to do some deeper dives into those areas. They have choice in books, projects, and research topics. Classrooms supply the resources students need to do the research and innovation and create the projects to show their learning.
 
Teachers guide students as they work together to solve problems. Students learn from each other as they explore ideas, ask questions, consider multiple solutions, and experiment with a variety of choices. Being curious helps students view problems more creatively. As students work together, they use empathy to see problems and ideas from another student’s perspective. That empathy encourages them to ask each other questions and collaborate as they explore possible solutions.
 
An important aspect of curiosity is learning to actively listen to others. Listening is a key process that fills gaps in knowledge and understanding and helps identify other questions to investigate. Some students would rather talk instead of actively listen. They need guidance to understand that asking questions, and then actively listening, leads to more meaningful connections and more creative outcomes.
 
Parents can help children develop curiosity at home, too. As at school, create a safe place to ask questions. Provide resources for students as they investigate problems and try to find answers or solutions. Look for websites that can offer examples of curiosities for children. One great example is Ian Byrd’s Puzzlements and Curiosities. Common Sense Media also has suggestions for websites and apps that encourage curiosity in multiple subject areas: https://www.commonsense.org/education/blog/we-all-teach-sel-curiosity-activities-and-tools-for-students. One last suggestion for parents is to play board games with their children that promote creativity and problem solving, such as Ubongo, Qwirkle, Blokus, Clue, and the card game Set.
 
In the words of Albert Einstein, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”
 
 
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