A few years ago, a Gallup Organization survey of a half million students found that the longer students spend in school, the less most of them like it. Overall, 74 percent of fifth graders express enthusiasm about school. By twelfth grade, that number falls to 34 percent.
Consider that for a moment. At an age when learning should be more engaging—high school students ought to be to exploring the deep mysteries of the universe, encountering great literature that reveals our shared humanity, and mastering the elegant language of mathematics that helps them solve complex problems—they’re bored out of their minds.
Why should that be? Numerous studies point to the missing ingredient—something we observe in abundance in younger children, only to watch it slip away as they progress through school: curiosity.
I’ve written frequently about curiosity, most recently in Building a Curious School: Restore the Joy That Brought You to School, co-published by McREL and Corwin. The title points to a key idea in the book: If we want students to be curious and experience joyful learning, we need to create schools that allow teachers to be curious and experience joyful learning as well.
Curiosity, as it turns out, is beguiling because it’s such a familiar word that we all think we know what there is to know about it. Yet as we dive deep into studies of curiosity, we learn it has numerous benefits for students and adults alike, including these:
- It supports better learning—student curiosity is more strongly linked with achievement than IQ or persistence.
- It supports better relationships—curious people are more likely to engage in deeper, more meaningful conversations and connections with others.
- It supports well-being—curious people also report greater happiness and ability to overcome life’s problems.
- It supports better job performance—curiosity is linked to higher employee performance ratings, job advancement, and personal income.
- It supports better organizations—organizations with greater levels of curiosity tend to demonstrate higher levels of innovation and performance.
- It supports better leadership—leaders of successful organizations and companies, especially those that are able to successfully navigate uncertain waters, demonstrate greater levels of curiosity.
Given all these positive benefits of curiosity, it may well be one of the most powerful gifts we can give our students. We might also see it as a silver lining to the current environment in which we find ourselves.
You see, researchers, including Susan Engel at Williams College, have observed that harried teachers often inadvertently quash curiosity in the classroom because they feel compelled to “cover” content or finish worksheets with little time for questions, wonder, experimentation, or imaginative thinking.
As it turns out, the childhoods of remarkable individuals—people whose insatiable curiosity led them to leave an indelible mark on history (for example, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, and Theodore Roosevelt) all had one thing in common: an “unschooled” childhood. Many of them were, in fact, terrible at “schooling” but great at learning—typically on their own, exploring the world around them (and sometimes libraries full of books) with guidance from a supportive tutor.
In this moment, teachers have the rare opportunity to engage students in some productive and semi-structured “unschooling.” Without pressure of mandated testing or curricula, many creative teachers are discovering they can use project-based learning to engage students in deep learning and exploration of topics that interest them. And they’re also discovering that learning can occur away from the classroom (and even the computer screen)—through reading and discussing books, creating art, writing about learning, and talking one-on-one on the phone with teachers during their virtual office hours.
So, perhaps right now the most important question teachers can still be asking themselves isn’t, What do I want students to learn . . . but, What do I want them to be curious about?
Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. A former high school teacher and college instructor, he is the author/coauthor of Curiosity Works, Out of Curiosity, and Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning, among other publications.