“Just being around peers seems to encourage curiosity”

PublicDomainImages, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
PublicDomainImages, pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

Researchers Susan Engel and Goren Gordon are interested in how curiosity develops in children and the role it plays in learning. In our interview, they discussed whether the effects of discouraging curiosity are reversible, why measuring curiosity is important, and in which ways curiosity is contagious.

Sabine Gysi: Goren, you wrote in a recent blog post that curiosity is very important for learning, but that it tends to fade as children grow older and go to school. What goes wrong in formal education? Why does it stifle curiosity?

Goren Gordon: Curiosity is a driving force; the more information you learn, the more rewarded you feel, and this affects your inclination to ask further questions. There has to be a reward – either receiving information, or being allowed to do something, such as tinkering with objects. The problem is that when you continue to ask questions and don’t get a reward, or are even punished, you will associate inquiry with negative reward or punishment.

Imagine you’re a student, and whenever you ask a question your classmates laugh at you, or your teacher says, “Be quiet!” You will associate your curiosity, the drive to acquire knowledge, with punishment.

Of course, if you have one teacher and thirty students, you simply cannot allow all thirty students to ask questions all the time. So the students may associate asking questions with punishment in the school context, but at home they may still be encouraged to ask questions, so they will behave differently there.

“Adults can influence children’s curiosity. What neither of us knows yet is whether, and in what way, those kinds of temporary influences have a longer-term impact.”

Susan Engel: There’s a big question we don’t have an answer to yet: the question of the long-term impact of factors that encourage or discourage curiosity. There is plenty of evidence, at this point, that context matters. Imagine this situation: A kid comes into a room where there is a box with drawers, and there are things in the drawers. If a grown-up is sitting there smiling, the kid will go up to the box faster, open more of the drawers and spend more time exploring objects. If the grown-up is frowning, the kid will take longer to go to the box, open fewer drawers and spend less time exploring.

Adults can influence children’s curiosity. What neither of us knows yet is whether, and in what way, those kinds of temporary influences have a longer-term impact.

I would speculate that if you are in a school that discourages exploration – not just questioning, but also tinkering – but then you go home to parents who say, “Yes, let’s open that up,” or “That is a great question,” you are more likely to hold on to your curiosity. If the parents mimic what happens at school, or are annoyed, or ignore you, you are going to lose curiosity everywhere, little by little. The question is, can you ever get it back?

GG: I believe it’s not irreversible. I think if a child begins to associate asking questions with punishment and stops asking, it doesn’t mean the child doesn’t want to know anymore. If later, in another context, questions and exploration are permitted – not rewarded, because I think the motivation should be intrinsic – the child will start asking questions again.

“We know that there are trait-like individual differences, and so a very curious kid will probably remain curious, even in the most restrictive environments.”

SE: I don’t agree, but I don’t have good evidence to back me up. If you look at adults, you see really strong individual differences in curiosity. I would speculate that by the time they are grown up, many people just aren’t that curious anymore. And not just because of what they have experienced in school! We know that there are trait-like individual differences, and so a very curious kid will probably remain curious, even in the most restrictive environments.

We have some evidence about that, actually: School influences have a bigger impact on kids who have low initial curiosity. These kids are more susceptible, but I don’t think it is just that they are inhibited in the moment. Over time, some kids actually have less curiosity, or less of a disposition to inquire, but we don’t know why. Is it that they stop paying attention to their information gap, or is it because they notice but give up because their curiosity hasn’t been rewarded?

SG: Does the degree to which a school influences curiosity depend on the individual teacher?

SE: Yes. So if a kid is in a school where everybody discourages curiosity, and has a steady diet of that for twelve years, you can expect there to be a negative impact. If your kid has one or two teachers who aren’t encouraging but everybody else is, it is going to be different.

SG: Everyone concerned with children’s learning and development agrees that a high level of curiosity is desirable. But how does curiosity manifest itself? Can we measure it somehow?

GG: Curiosity is a very complex thing. There is not just one parameter to be measured. There is physical curiosity, expressed by tinkering; there is verbal curiosity, expressed by inquiries; and then there is social curiosity. If you want to measure all of this, you have to know which specific type(s) of curiosity you’re interested in. I’m trying to develop several tools to measure curiosity that will give a more complete picture.

I like to look at the type of curiosity that develops when you’re aimless and have no specific task to accomplish. There is simply a new toy in front of you, you don’t know what to do with it, you tinker and try it out. This is the most genuine way of exploring. You learn how to learn, you learn how to ask questions. You learn which questions are more informative and which actions will give you more information. You learn how to explore.

“From my mathematical perspective – many psychologists will not agree – I believe that if information is rewarding you will change your behavior in order to get more information.”

From my mathematical perspective – many psychologists will not agree – I believe that if information is rewarding you will change your behavior in order to get more information. The question is: If you get a reward, will you tinker in the way I just described, or will you just learn how to gain more information? Does becoming curious mean learning how to explore, or learning how to behave and explore?

SE: But you could be curious, yet not good at exploring. That is one way in which school can have a big impact: It can help you to get better at exploring.

GG: I develop games so that I can observe children and assess and observe the development of curiosity. The goal is to have various games: one to show the difference between diverse and specific curiosity, one about asking questions, one about physical curiosity, and so on. We need to measure not just one, but roughly 20 parameters!

The goal is to somehow correlate all of these measurement parameters with other parameters, such as school performance, teacher attitudes, and social environment, and to see how they relate to one another. Once we have the assessment tools ready, the goal is to conduct the assessment over many years, or with all of the children in one school, to see how all of these things change during formal education.

SE: It is important to remember that we assess for different reasons. As researchers, we assess because we are trying to find out what is going on, or whether there is a change, let’s say between 5-year-olds and 7-year-olds. But educators have a variety of reasons. You might want to be able to evaluate the children relative to one another – and that is what a lot of assessments in the U.S. are all about – or you might want to see whether the school is doing a good job at making the disposition to inquire grow over time.

In all of these cases, the same version of a measuring tool might be used, but in very different ways.

GG: I like to take the point of view of the educator, not the researcher. In Israel, I work with several schools. Nowadays, every school claims that it cultivates curiosity and creativity; that’s the slogan everyone uses, but I don’t know if they actually do so because there is no measure. So my response is: Maybe you’re right, but if you can’t do pre- and post-assessments of an intervention, you can’t prove that you are fostering curiosity.

Some companies working with educational apps claim that if children use their app, they will become more curious. Maybe they will, and I am not against those providers, but I want to measure it somehow. I am using robots for interventions because I want to measure children’s curiosity and how it changes over time, and I want to find out how you can promote curiosity.

“Curiosity is contagious not only between peers, but between adults and children.”

Now, if you have individual differences within a class, one kid being curious and one not, you should be able to help the non-curious children. As a good educator, you should teach them how to ask questions and how to try new things and explore.

SG: Susan, could you also ask the more curious kids to help the not-so-curious kids?

SE: Yes, I have some research on that. I did a study with a student of mine, Dan Silver; the title of the paper is “Is Curiosity Contagious?” We paired a highly curious kid with a less curious kid and gave them time together, then measured their curiosity using what we called the “fish task.” It turns out that curiosity is more contagious than we thought. The preliminary data suggest that just being with other kids makes you more curious, as long as they are a little more curious than you, but they don’t have to be more curious by a certain amount in order to infect you with curiosity.

Just being around peers seems to encourage curiosity. That is good news, because it makes intervention easier.

SG: So spending time with curious peers – and with curious robots – helps. What can teachers do to encourage children’s curiosity, even if there are 30 children in a class?

SE: By being interested in the process of developing curiosity, by valuing it as an educational outcome, and by thinking about deliberate ways to nurture curiosity in their students, they can have a big impact. The second thing (which, in an ideal world, they would do first, for instance while preparing to become teachers), would be to develop their own curiosity. Find things they long to know more about, and spend time pursuing those domains. Curiosity is contagious not only between peers, but between adults and children.

“It is extremely empowering for the child to realize that it’s not only okay not to know something, but it’s a good thing, and that asking questions is very important.”

GG: I teach an hour a week at my children’s school, first and third graders. I teach about science and experimentation, but I am more interested in promoting curiosity than in simply conveying information. During the first 15 minutes of every class, I encourage the children to ask any question they want. There are only 20 children in my class, but this can also work with a larger class. I give the children points; they receive 1 point for a well-formulated question, 2 points if I don’t know the answer and 3 points if Google doesn’t know the answer.

They learn how to ask really interesting and tough questions, such as “When were glasses invented?” or “How high can a bird fly?” It is extremely empowering for the child to realize that it’s not only okay not to know something, but it’s a good thing, and that asking questions is very important.

Susan Engel

Susan Engel is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Williams College and the founding director of the Program in Teaching. She is the author of seven books, including The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. Her current work investigates how children learn to build ideas.

Goren Gordon

Goren Gordon is an Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering and the head of the Curiosity Lab at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Gordon studies curiosity from a multidisciplinary perspective, integrating computer-science principles of artificial curiosity with social robots in order to create curious social robots, and using active-learning algorithms to assess curiosity in people of all ages. Gordon is a 2017-2019 Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow.

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