The Powerful Force of Curiosity

“ I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein

smiling girl looking curiously at black beetle on her outstretched handCuriosity killed the cat. Eve was curious about the forbidden fruit. Pandora was curious about what was in that box. Parables and proverbs of the past often warn against the dangers of seeking. Today, this notion is outdated. We claim to no longer accept the idea that we’re all better off minding our own business and accepting given answers. Seeking new questions is valued… or is it? It’s one thing to claim to be in support of curiosity and quite another to allow it to thrive in any given environment.

In a 2015 PwC survey of more than one thousand CEOs, many cited “curiosity” as a critical leadership trait. Yet companies are often accused of discouraging curiosity because it can lead to questions that undermine authority, slow productivity, and put traditional means of working under scrutiny. And while educators have long been supporters of curiosity, they have also fallen prey to similar criticism, both historically and in modern education.

Albert Einstein was a severe critic of education in his time, saying: “It is nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” Today, education doesn’t fare much better at the hand of critics — often classified as places where curiosity is not valued or even where it comes “to die.”

But the real question is, “does curiosity really matter?” Does an educational approach that values curiosity advance learning and academic success? The answer most certainly is yes.  Science is beginning to uncover the important link between curiosity and learning, and research tells us that we’re right to place high value on this trait.

In 2014, the journal Neuron published an important study out of the Center for Neuroscience, University of California at Davis, Davis, CA. The research found that a subject’s state of curiosity changed their brain chemistry. When subjects claimed to feel a pique in curiosity, MRI scans revealed that pleasure and reward centers lit up and so did areas of the brain related to memory creation. Participants who had reached this state of curiosity also better retained learned information.

The authors felt the implication was clear: “These findings suggest a link between the mechanisms supporting extrinsic reward motivation and intrinsic curiosity and highlight the importance of stimulating curiosity to create more effective learning experiences.”

Outside brain scans, studies which survey student’s propensity for curiosity show it’s a strong predictor of academic success. The Association for Psychological Science reports on a recent meta-analysis of character traits that influence academic performance.

The article Curiosity Doesn’t Kill the Student published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, reports: “A meta-analysis from about 200 studies with a total of about 50,000 students… found that curiosity did, indeed, influence academic performance.”

In fact, the analysis determined that curiosity, along with conscientiousness, may be as important as intelligence in determining how well students do in school. The paper’s co-writer, Sophie von Stumm of the University of Edinburgh, was not surprised that curiosity played such a lead role in academics. “I’m a strong believer in the importance of a hungry mind for achievement, so I was just glad to finally have a good piece of evidence.”

Science has also uncovered the way in which curiosity interplays with learning and memory. There is, in essence, a sweet spot or “gap” between curiosity and memory formation where learning can flourish. As reported in the Wired magazine article The Itch of Curiosity, we are best capable of learning new things when we know just a little about a subject, are curious to learn more, but are still uncertain about the answers.

This Caltech study, featured in the article, found that, “In the moments after the question was first asked, subjects showed a substantial increase in brain activity in three separate areas: the left caudate, the prefrontal cortex and the parahippocampal gyri. The most interesting finding is the activation of the caudate, which seems to sit at the intersection of new knowledge and positive emotions.”

So how do we, as educators, better cultivate and encourage curiosity in our school cultures and classrooms?

Step One: Stop focusing on the “Answers.”

This may seem counterintuitive to some. Even if questions are the primer of learning, the answers are the whole point. Children get tested and rewarded for knowing answers. One might argue that when learning science, one can engage in Socratic inquiry to come to the right answer, but there is no such luxury in spelling, reading or fractions. Or is there?

Waldorf educators make space and time for student questions, active exploration, and careful observation. Teachers work to inspire curiosity in all subjects and all grade levels. This is, in part, the benefit of a deprioritized testing culture, which grants teachers the authority to teach creatively. Some modern critics have specifically argued about the detriments of testing in both diminishing creative teaching and squelching curiosity.

Step Two: Normalize Failure

As recently discussed in the article Fostering Lifelong Learning education leaders and motivation researchers alike call for a rethink on how we regard failure as a culture. In essence, those who see failure as a step in the learning process become lifelong learners inspired by intrinsic motivation.

In classrooms, teachers can help remove the stigma of failure by shifting the focus to process and not result (again, a de-emphasis on answers). When failure is moved into the value column, students can see it as a natural byproduct of learning and not a personal assault to the ego. This, in turn, will help maintain a healthy sense of curiosity.

Step Three: Use Multidisciplinary Approaches

Students all learn differently and have varied interest. While no teacher has the time to customize learning on a student-by-student basis, they can reach the inherent curiosity of different learners by using a variety of methods and approaches to teaching. This often requires more up-front lesson planning and making space and time in the classroom for approaches that include movement, manipulatives, or the arts.

While making time for these approaches may seem unwise in a pervasive testing culture, “turnaround arts” schools in California are taking the gamble that multidisciplinary approaches will pay off as it has for the first few schools to implement the programs. In the meantime, they describe the children as curious and engaged, saying, “They ask questions about what they’re learning. They don’t just kind of skim over it.”

And research from Mississippi State University, published at Science Daily, says it will pay off just as it has in outreach programs in Mississippi. Their study found that, “When teachers reinforce academic concepts with the arts, students learn more and score higher on standardized tests.”

Test scores aside, awakening the natural curiosity all children exhibit, and fostering this trait into adulthood, is an idea worthy of pursuit in today’s education environment. This essential drive to learn, intrinsically, is the precursor to innovation, art, and inspiration in all its forms. And these are the disciplines that make the world a better place.