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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing." -- Albert Einstein

It's no secret that curiosity makes learning more effective and enjoyable. Curious students not only ask questions, but also actively seek out the answers. Without curiosity, Sir Isaac Newton would have never formulated the laws of physics, Alexander Fleming probably wouldn't have discovered penicillin, and Marie Curie's pioneering research on radioactivity may not exist.

Instilling students with a strong desire to know or learn something is what every teacher lives for, and research has even shown that curiosity is just as important as intelligence in determining how well students do in school. But how much do we really know about its role in the learning process?

Your Brain Likes Curiosity

Recently, researchers from the University of California, Davis conducted a series of experiments to discover what exactly goes on in the brain when our curiosity is aroused. For the study, the researchers had participants rate how curious they were to learn the answers to more than 100 trivia questions, such as "What Beatles single lasted longest on the charts, at 19 weeks?" or "What does the term 'dinosaur' actually mean?" At certain points throughout the study, fMRI scans were carried out to see what was happening in the brain when participants felt particularly curious about the answer to a question.

So what did these experiments reveal? Here are two of the most important findings.

1. Curiosity prepares the brain for learning.

While it might be no big surprise that we're more likely to remember what we've learned when the subject matter intrigues us, it turns out that curiosity also helps us learn information we don't consider all that interesting or important.

The researchers found that, once the subjects' curiosity had been piqued by the right question, they were better at learning and remembering completely unrelated information. One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Matthias Gruber, explains that this is because curiosity puts the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it.

So if a teacher is able to arouse students' curiosity about something they're naturally motivated to learn, they'll be better prepared to learn things that they would normally consider boring or difficult. For instance, if a student struggles with math, personalizing math problems to match their specific interests rather than using generic textbook questions could help them better remember how to go about solving similar math problems in the future.

2. Curiosity makes subsequent learning more rewarding.

Aside from preparing the brain for learning, curiosity can also make learning a more rewarding experience for students.

The researchers found that when the participants' curiosity had been sparked, there was not only increased activity in the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain involved in the creation of memories, but also in the brain circuit that is related to reward and pleasure. This circuit is the same one that lights up when we get something we really like, such as candy or money, and it relies on dopamine, a "feel-good" chemical that relays messages between neurons and gives us a sort of high.

So not only will arousing students' curiosity help them remember lessons that might otherwise go in one ear and out the other, but it can also make the learning experience as pleasurable as ice cream or pocket money. Of course, most teachers already instinctively know the importance of fostering inquisitive minds, but to have science back it up is undeniably satisfying.

Asking the Right Question

Naturally, there are still a few things that remain unclear about curiosity's role in learning. For one thing, scientists have yet to determine its long-term effects. For instance, if a student's curiosity is stimulated at the beginning of a school day, will it help them better absorb information all day long? Another thing the researchers are keen to investigate is why some people are more naturally curious than others, and which factors most influence how curious we are.

For the moment, though, these findings serve as a reminder that there is no such thing as a dumb question, because as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes in his book Why Don't Students Like School?, it's the question that stimulates curiosity -- being told the answer quells curiosity before it can even get going.

So rather than jumping straight into the answers, let's try to start students off with the sort of questions that encourage them to do their own seeking.

What questions tend to spark greater curiosity among your students?

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TODD SENTELL's picture
TODD SENTELL
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

ADULTS ARE CURIOUS, TOO. ABOUT SCHOOL

All of a sudden I got a good and curious and remorseful feeling in my gut and heart and mind and soul and started thinking about what it might be like to be a substitute teacher at the school near where I live for kids who have learning, behavior, and emotional disorders, and then I decided I wanted to do that for a while and that's how it all got started.

The thought, random or ominous, was just as natural as thinking about some of my golf swing problems. Of course, I figured I could make a lot more money being a substitute teacher than what I was making as a real estate agent who didn't sell anything.

While I was substitute teaching one day, a regular teacher said to me about a sixth grader, who was standing right there beside us in the great room of the middle school, "You should have seen Debbie when she got here two years ago." And then the teacher put her hand on the sixth grader's shoulder and said in a tone of voice as if it would be the last thing she'd ever say, "Now she's my miracle. My miracle." I found out that teachers get to have those moments a lot. Even substitute teachers.

Some people say teaching is a calling ... that if you don't feel you've been called to teach definitely don't dang do it. I got called a whole lot more than I thought I would.

KIIT School of Management Bhubaneswar's picture

Thanks for sharing such a wonderful write-up. The willingness to explore actually makes learning more effective. This holds true for everyone, from MBA degree holders to engineering aspirants. Just paying a hefty MBA Course fee is not enough; you need to have that inquisitive bent of mind to attain success.

(2)
TODD SENTELL's picture
TODD SENTELL
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

THE BUNNY IS CURIOUS BUT NOT RAMBUNCTIOUS

I have been substituting so much they finally gave me an e-mail address. I guess this means I'm bona-fide. Now I can really see what the adults are up to around here. I got my first e-mail. It was sent to all the teachers and students from a student in the high school:

" ... I have a young male bunny rabbit that I am giving away to a loving home. I am not giving him away because I don't like him but because he is costing a good amount of money and I do not have a job at the moment. He is easy to fall in love with. He is free and will come with a cage, bottle, food dish, some food, timothy hay, hay holder, litter box, some litter, and a couple of toys. He is a very calm bunny. The bunny is curious but not rambunctious. He is less than 6 months old. He likes licking things and hopping around on the carpet. If you are interested and would like more information, please e-mail me back. Thank you, Rachel."

I know what you're wondering, of course. Me, too. What's timothy hay.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

We can't know it all. At some point in life most successful people figure out an important fact: not only do they not know it all, they can't know it all. Any lawyer, physician, accountant or business executive can explain this phenomenon: there is always more to know, to learn, to look up, another reference to check, journal article to read, stone to turn over for answers, future to predict . . .. The more you know and discover, the more you find there is to know. Creating a strong team and valuing the contributions of its members supports the ability to work smarter and easier and to more quickly acquire necessary information for a project. There are abundance of "unknowns" and opportunities to learn in each such situation, made easier by tapping into the brilliance of the people around us.

(2)
Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

This seems to me to be an excellent reason to use Problem Based Learning. By presenting a problem to solve (or better yet, moving from a problem identified by the students), we're opening up the brain to integrate all kinds of learning into a meaningful solution.

(2)
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

This reminds me of Dan Meyer's goal to perplex his math students (http://blog.mrmeyer.com/). By presenting them with something that causes them to be perplexed, they are then curious about solving the problem. He is turning math education upside down by suggesting that we shouldn't be able to grade all math work with a computer, i.e., they need to ask and answer questions like "why?" My goodness, it seems so obvious: if kids are curious, they want to find the answers!

(1)
Julie Anne's picture
Julie Anne
Teacher | Blogger | Owner of Green Apple Lessons

Curiosity is at the heart of all great learning!

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Of course, when facing a situation of interest (an interesting school assignment or a real-world issue of some type), the drive for a useful outcome will naturally increase the curiosity level because of the interest. I expect that that curiosity level will in turn be sustained if not increased during and after the initial drive since that same interest will motivate the efforts to optimize the outcomes, find different applications, ...

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