What makes you, or your students, curious about a particular topic?
And have you ever been curious about curiosity itself? What is it, exactly? What triggers it? How can we best use curiosity in teaching and learning? Can it be encouraged (or discouraged), harnessed, and strengthened (or weakened)?
These questions, and more, have captured our interest here at McREL, and have driven us to review research studies and academic publications, and talk with educators in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere about the use of curiosity in instructional planning and delivery, and its effects on students and adult learners. We’ve been so intrigued by what we’ve learned that, in addition to incorporating our findings into our peer-to-peer coaching work with educators, we’ve written several books recently about the power of curiosity, including Curiosity Works, Unstuck, and, due out in September, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives.
Curiosity is an innate human trait; we’re all born with natural curiosity to explore our surroundings and ask questions about what we and others are experiencing and thinking. But studies also show that, for far too many of us, this high level of inquisitiveness and exploration fades as we get older. For example, researcher Susan Engel found kindergarten students displaying, on average, 2.36 episodes of curiosity over a two-hour period. By fifth grade, however, that number had dropped to 0.48 episodes in a two-hour period, which suggests that many students spend their entire school day “without asking even one question or engaging in one sequence of behavior aimed at finding out something new.”
That’s discouraging, because other research suggests curiosity can have powerful lifelong effects, if we can keep it going. For example, psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron found that expressing curiosity about one another helps people forge and maintain deep, healthy relationships. Their onetime student turned researcher Todd Kashdan expanded on the Arons’ work and has published widely about the many ways curiosity affects life satisfaction and happiness. Other writers with backgrounds in social science, including Philip Ball and Mario Livio, have described how the jobs we do, the places we go, and even the thoughts we think, all are deeply linked to curiosity.
Bringing our focus back to K–16 education, we’re seeing that curiosity has been under-tapped; it has even greater potential that’s worth our attention and further exploration.
First, curiosity has the power to feed deep inquiry and perseverance—for students as well as for teachers and school leaders. If we thoughtfully apply curiosity to lesson planning, instructional strategies, professional learning and collaboration, and leadership activities, evidence shows we can make some substantial increases in school performance.
Second, even though curiosity is innate, we’re not born with a fixed lump sum of it—our curiosity can be molded and expanded over a lifetime. Which means, as our education colleagues in Australia have said, curiosity is as important to teaching and learning as are literacy and numeracy.
Over the next few weeks, my colleagues and I will be blogging more about what curiosity is and how to harness it. We’ll be producing new resources, presenting curiosity themed sessions at various conferences, and providing curiosity based services to schools and districts.
So, if you’re curious about curiosity, stay tuned to McREL.
Roger Fiedler is the senior director of marketing at McREL International. Before joining McREL he was a K–12 school district communications director.