Imagine a science classroom filled with beakers and pilot lights, where students wearing protective glasses hover around materials, excitedly sharing hypotheses and ideas. These students are curious learners: engaged in their education and anxious to find out what happens next. But this idealized vision is not the typical school experience.
Students do not associate curiosity with school, and struggle to provide any examples of being curious in classrooms. What is driving this disconnect between students’ curiosity and school learning environments? In my lab at the Curry School of Education, our recent research aims to answer this question and identify ways to promote curiosity in classroom learning.
What is curiosity, and why is it important?
In a recent book chapter, we discuss what it means to be curious in school. Curious learning is seeking information through exploration in the face of uncertainty. For example, choosing a project topic one knows little about or that seems challenging over something very familiar. This exploring, or information seeking behavior, is the goal – this is what can lead to learning.
“When engaging in similar experiences, highly curious children learn more compared to children who prefer to explore less uncertainty.”
Children who prefer to explore higher levels of uncertainty ask more questions, are better at identifying information needed to resolve uncertainty, and are more persistent and motivated to understand material. When engaging in similar experiences, highly curious children learn more compared to children who prefer to explore less uncertainty. With ample evidence of the educational benefits of curiosity, the obvious question is: How can we promote curiosity to help all children be more curious?
How can curiosity be promoted in schools?
We presented a study exploring this question at the 2018 International Mind, Brain, and Education Society (IMBES) meeting. In this work, we identified instructional methods of promoting student curiosity. If being curious means being comfortable with and motivated to explore higher levels of uncertainty, promoting curiosity should involve increasing students’ comfort with uncertainty, providing the motivation and knowledge to seek information to resolve it.
Using exemplary teacher models and existing research, we identified instructional methods related to promoting recognition of, comfort with, and exploration of uncertainty in learning. For example, teachers can give students multiple opportunities to just think about problems before trying to solve them, and time and space to share their thoughts with others. We observed teachers encouraging multiple students to share ideas with the class and emphasizing the value of differentways of thinking about and doing things. These teachers de-emphasize finding the “correct” answer and the belief that there is a single, correct way to think about things more generally.
“Promoting curiosity should involve increasing students’ comfort with uncertainty, providing the motivation and knowledge to seek information to resolve it.”
We observed scaffolding of students’ thinking not by providing a missing step or showing them a mistake needing correction, but by asking students questions to help them evaluate their own thinking process or consider other approaches. For example, instead of saying, “This step wasn’t correct, try to do it the way we did it as a class,” the teacher would say, “Why did you decide to do it this way? Can you think of any other ways that you could try?”
Current state of curiosity in classrooms
We identified eight methods of promoting curiosity through classroom instruction, and then assessed how often these were happening in typical schools. We assessed curiosity promotion in 286 lessons, including 5thgrade mathematics and preschool mathematics and science.
Did we observe teachers promoting curiosity in classroom instruction? Thankfully, the answer is yes – at least to a degree. However, the frequency was low. Teachers more often provided opportunities to think and explore than providing more direct support, like explicitly guiding children’s information-seeking behavior. No instances of prompting students to generate questions, which we believe is crucial to curiosity-promotion, have been observed thus far.
We saw more frequent curiosity-promotion during math instruction in preschool (about once every 5-6 minutes) than in fifth grade (about once every 7 minutes), and higher rates of promoting curiosity in science than math lessons in preschool (about once every 4-5 minutes). This work, presented at IMBES, further explores the associations between curiosity-promotion and student outcomes, both academic and outcomes related to enjoyment and engagement in learning.
“Promoting curiosity could lead to more student participation, more social-learning through idea sharing, and more hands-on exploring driven by students’ ideas rather than a provided procedure.”
Would school look different if students were more curious? There is strong evidence to say that, yes – classroom instruction would be noticeably different with more curious students. Generally, we expect curious students to ask more questions, which are valuable for learning but occur at historically low rates.
More broadly, classroom climate impacts students’ educational experiences, and promoting curiosity could lead to more student participation, more social-learning through idea sharing, and more hands-on exploring driven by students’ ideas rather than a provided procedure – in general, more productive engagement and learning.
The purpose of the biannual IMBES Conference is to facilitate cross-cultural collaborations in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Our objectives are to improve the state of knowledge in and dialogue between education, biology, and the developmental and cognitive sciences; create and develop resources for scientists, practitioners, public policy makers, and the public; and create and identify useful information, research directions, and promising educational practices. The 2018 conference took place in Los Angeles, California.
The author of this blog post, Jamie Jirout, was among the presenters at the conference.