Jamie Jirout is a cognitive development researcher at the University of Virginia. Jamie studies the development of curiosity in children, and how curiosity can improve learning. She is eager to find ways for educators and school systems to help students become more curious. Annie Brookman-Byrne talks with Jamie about how nurturing children’s curiosity can help them become lifelong learners and find solutions to challenges in a changing world.

Annie Brookman-Byrne: What is the role of curiosity in education?

Jamie Jirout: Curiosity is a natural motivator for learning. I study the potential benefits of curious learning. If students are curious when learning, they remember more of what they have learned. For example, when children explore fun facts, those who are more curious during the task remember more of the information they have gathered. I’m trying to identify what it is in the learning process that leads to those memory benefits, and how learning experiences can promote curiosity. My colleagues and I are testing how providing choice and autonomy affects learning, and what kinds of support and scaffolding help children develop the metacognitive and information-seeking skills needed for curiosity to lead to learning.

More from Jamie Jirout on curiosity and learning
Why aren’t students curious in the classroom?

I am also looking at how teachers promote curiosity and which instructional practices might make learners more or less curious. For example, what happens when a teacher acts curious? And what happens when students are asked to generate their own question rather than waiting for the teacher to ask the questions?  I am also looking at the ways children think about being curious in school. Learning is more enjoyable when it is curiosity-driven, and our research shows the importance of school enjoyment for learning over time. It seems that many things influence moments of curiosity, and I hope that understanding this will lead to practical strategies for promoting curious learning in school.

“If students are curious when learning, they remember more of what they have learned.”

More on curious learning in school on the Teachers’ Voices podcast
How a curious and creative classroom can inspire learning

ABB: Has curiosity research changed over time?

JJ: For many years, research into children’s curiosity was somewhat rare! It’s not that researchers weren’t interested in that topic, but it wasn’t explicitly studied. The related field of motivation is well developed, with many frameworks and theories about what motivates people, but there was little emphasis on curiosity until recently.

Now many researchers are studying curiosity, including cognitive developmentalists, education researchers, and neuroscientists. Their work is helping us develop theories about what curiosity is and what it looks like. It is pretty complicated – there are so many different ways of defining and measuring curiosity. It is also hard to differentiate curiosity from other factors, such as a child’s interest in the topic they’re learning about. There is still a lot we don’t know!

ABB: How might children benefit from this research?

JJ: We live in a fast-changing and increasingly challenging world. We can’t teach children about technologies that haven’t been invented yet, or to solve problems that don’t yet exist. They will need to know how to think critically and learn new things; lifelong learning will become more important than ever. Education needs to be more than just content knowledge. Children need to learn to identify the information they need in a more open-ended context. They will need to be motivated to engage in the learning process to seek out that information, and to skillfully find and evaluate information – especially in light of all the inaccuracies online. All of these things benefit from curiosity!

Curiosity involves asking more questions, and recognizing whether information is helpful or not. When children explore in an effort to find information, those who are more curious remember and learn more. With education moving forward from the disruption of COVID-19, and with the affordances provided by tools like ChatGPT, external motivation like grades isn’t going to be very effective for meaningful learning.

“We need to rethink school so that it nurtures curiosity and intrinsically motivated information-seeking as the driver for learning.”

My colleagues and I define curiosity as an intrinsic motivation to seek out specific information when something is found to be ambiguous or not known. We need to start early in children’s lives to help them stay curious and become lifelong learners. We need to rethink school so that it nurtures curiosity and intrinsically motivated information-seeking as the driver for learning. This will develop more meaningful content knowledge and learning skills. I hope that promoting curiosity will support more meaningful learning and ultimately set children up to be critical learners who will be able to solve the challenges they face.

ABB: What are the big questions in this field that have yet to be answered?

JJ: What is curiosity? This is probably the biggest mystery in the field. The answer will influence the answers to many other open questions and how we study them, and there are many different ways people think about this. For example, some researchers don’t believe there is a difference between interest and curiosity, while others see important differences. In my work, I differentiate between curiosity and interest by viewing curiosity as a more temporary state that is linked to something specific that a person wants to figure out, while interests are more general and focused on topics rather than specific questions. But – there is a reciprocal relationship between the two! Interests can lead to curiosity, and curiosity can lead to interest.

Many researchers believe that curiosity declines with age, but we know very little about whether this is true. The pattern is different for self-reported survey measures than for observed behaviors, and it depends on the age span being studied and how demanding the tasks are that measure curiosity. Similarly, it seems that the level of curiosity is much lower in formal educational settings than outside of school, but we don’t know whether children’s curiosity in school is just not manifesting itself in ways we can observe. Children say they are curious about academic content, but they don’t always believe that school is a place where they should be curious. 

ABB: What are your hopes for the future of this field?

JJ: I hope that the field continues to grow and become more collaborative, so that we can integrate different researchers’ perspectives into a comprehensive understanding of what curiosity is and how to promote it. I would be thrilled if education systems and partners – school districts, state departments of education, education policymakers, etc. – were to prioritize curiosity and curious learning in education. I would love the chance to see (and study) the impacts of curiosity-driven learning in public education!

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