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The Importance of Being Curious

"If we are interested in producing a population of critical thinkers armed with courage, resilience, and a love of learning and discovery, then we must recognize, harness, and cultivate curiosity." (Kashdan, 2022)

Curiosity is deeply linked with learning. We know that. And we know that curiosity can be ignited. So igniting curiosity in our classrooms inevitably leads to improved learning. Why then, is building curiosity not a main focus in many of our classrooms? In today's digital, fast-paced world promoting curiosity is imperative.



So what is curiosity? And how can teachers develop curiosity in their classrooms? Curiosity is a strong desire to know something, so developing a state of curiosity in our students will increase the quality and quantity of learning in the classroom. Research suggests that intellectual curiosity has as big an effect on performance as hard work and intelligence. Another study found that students who are curious about a topic retain what they learned for longer periods of time.


It has been shown that staying curious is potentially beneficial for our brains’ function. Being curious is one way to exercise our neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is our brain's ability to form and reorganise synaptic connections, and this happens in response to learning. In other words, it is possible for us to grow our brains. At peak curiosity, our brains fire with increased intensity creating dopamine pathways (dopamine is the key player for consolidating memories).


Most teaching is focused on achieving measurable outcomes, and so there is little space for building curiosity. It is time to create that space! The trick is to identify what inspires the right kind of curiosity, and use it to learn more so that there is a desire to discover new things, and maximise the benefits. So how do we do this?


It helps to know that there are multiple dimensions to curiosity. Researcher Todd Kashdan, who synthesised years of research, found evidence of five specific dimensions of curiosity:

  • Joyous Exploration: This is the pleasurable experience of becoming interested in something and then wanting to discover new information, learn, and grow.

  • Need to Know Curiosity: Otherwise known as 'deprivation sensitivity', this is when there is something you want to know, but you don't have the answer yet. It's about getting the information to close the gap. Joyous Exploration is about the journey; Deprivation Sensitivity is about reaching the destination. This dimension comes with an uncomfortable feeling because there is a gap in your knowledge, and the gap needs to be filled.

  • Social Curiosity: This dimension is about wanting to know what other people are thinking and doing. Overt social curiosity, which is an interest in other people and their behaviours, feelings and thoughts. As Todd Kashdam says:

There is no more efficient and effective manner to learn about the world than by dissecting the experiences and knowledge of other people. Social curiosity is a gateway to the reservoir of knowledge and experiences held by people with diverse experiences, views, and perspectives.

  • Thrill Seeking Curiosity: This is about being willing to take risks, and the resulting feeling of excitement that arises from the anxiety of dealing with the unknown.

  • Stress Tolerance Curiosity: This dimension is about the doubt and confusion one feels when confronted with new, complex or mysterious concepts. This dimension reminds me of James Nottingham's notion of "The Learning Pit". It mobilises our energy to push forward and find ways to climb out of the pit.

When I came across these five dimensions, I realised that curiosity was a lot broader than what I had originally thought. Has this knowledge of the five dimensions made you reconsider your definition of curiosity?


Here are some ideas for you to use in your classroom to encourage your students to be curious:

  • Value and reward the different dimensions of curiosity. Notice and reinforce curiosity when you see it in action.

  • Use good questions. Teach students to ask good questions. Good questions are those that ask 'Why', 'How' or 'What if?'. Teachers can get their students to stretch their minds by asking 'What if' questions. Get your students to dig deeper in response to questions.

  • Allow for tinkering. Tinkering is constructive play. Tinkering with ideas, thoughts, materials, and writing leads to innovative ideas.

  • Teach your students to be skeptics. A skeptic challenges the status quo with open-minded, deep questions.

  • Encourage open-mindedness. Get your students to explore different cultures, societies, beliefs, mindsets.

  • Model curiosity by exploring your students' interests, expanding on their ideas and engaging in meaningful dialogue.


Try using an Explore Board to activate curiosity!


I have only just come across Explore Boards! And I'm a bit sad about that! Explore Boards are one way in which to activate curiosity by curating high interest content for your students. It allows students to take ownership of the background knowledge that interests them by providing links to different different forms of media about a topic, theme, or issue. Explore Boards must not be just tasks that students have to do; students need to choose what they want to explore. They need to feed their own curiosity.


I suggest you try one at the start of your next unit of work. This example is from Holly Clark of The Infused Classroom (I have been following her posts ever since she came out to South Africa as part of a Google conference quite a few years ago). This example is used to introduce a book titled "The Outsiders" which is set in the 1960s. The essential question is "What was life like in 1960s Tulsa, Oklahoma?". Students are given 15 minutes to explore the different squares, with absolutely no rules attached.


The Outsiders Explore Board
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I hope that 2022 will bring a year in which we all cultivate a curious mindset and encourage a questioning attitude in our classrooms. This will enable our students to go down a path of creativity and innovation.


References:

Clark, H., 2022. Using an Explore Board in the Classroom: The Outsiders HyperDoc Example - The Infused Classroom. [online] The Infused Classroom. Available at: <https://www.hollyclark.org/2022/01/04/using-an-explore-board-in-the-classroom/> [Accessed 24 January 2022].

Gazda, S., 2022. Stay curious for your brain’s wellbeing! [online] Suzanne Gazda M.D. Available at: <https://www.suzannegazdamd.com/blog/stay-curious-for-your-brains-wellbeing> [Accessed 24 January 2022].

Hamilton, D., 2019. Cracking the curiosity code. [S.l.]: Dr Diane Hamilton LLC.

Kashdan, T., 2022. Curiosity - Todd Kashdan. [online] Todd Kashdan. Available at: <https://toddkashdan.com/curiosity/#1622759866863-f18112d6-3eb5> [Accessed 24 January 2022].


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