Curiosity; a condition for learning
As young children, we are wonderfully curious about everything. Curiosity is the natural inquisitive behavior that engenders exploration, investigation and learning (Wikipedia). It is an openness to experience new things, trying to find answers to the whys that we’ve asked and continue to ask throughout our lives. Yet research tells us that curiosity declines as we progress through our education systems.
The fact is that young people are curious about everything; they have an unrestricted desire to understand. (Henman 2009) At five years of age 98% of all children have no problem thinking divergently. Not surprising really, three year olds, on average, ask their parents about one hundred questions a day, every day! However by the time they are ten to eleven years of age they’ve pretty much stopped asking. Of even greater concern is that by the age of twenty five only two per cent can think outside the box, curiosity seldom survives into adulthood. (Keen 1973). As we grow up, we start believing the answers are more important than the questions. Yet adult creativity is still powerful, there is just not enough of it, it can be said that the creative adult is the curious child who survived.
Fostering the scholarly attribute of curiosity in learners is an important task; one which is at the heart of education and effective learning as it challenges and promotes active participation in learning. As educators our challenge is that curiosity and curriculum are antithetical concepts with the curriculum often acting to limit student empowerment rather than enable for the most part. As educators we need to embrace curiosity and discovery in our thinking and planning. However, this is easier said than done, predominantly the curriculum dictates the teacher’s planning rather than the individual ideas or questions of the student. Our deliberate and thoughtful consideration and actions have the potential to empower our students, provoking and extending their engagement, learning and thinking. We need to plan in a thoughtful and purposeful way, creating an environment of possibility where the concept of the child as the architect of their own knowledge is valued and built upon. In essence we will be attempting continually inspire not require. The reality is that curiosity is the driving force behind lifelong learning as Gentry and McGinnis (2008) argue, learning to learn (or to be curious) is the most essential skill that they can acquire.Curiosity and discovery never age and are so powerful that they create learning; continually building upon itself, allowing our minds to open up as they grow and develop.
Why is curiosity so important? We would all agree that curiosity instigates intellectual activity and is a central ingredient to a fulfilling life. (T Kashdan 2009) Our purpose must be to nurture curiosity in our students, and to do this we will be required to develop a thinking curriculum which requires the verbalising of questions, a curriculum where the search for questions far outweighs the search for answers. Therefore curiosity becomes the cutting edge of knowledge, which is not in the knowing, it is in the questioning. (Adapted from Thompson 2009) Educational growth and the excitement of learning are not confined to the powers of recall, it is not about knowing what is, but creates a greater expectation of deeper learning and a higher level of understanding; it demands that we all aspire to be better than we thought we could be.
The important thing for all students is not to stop questioning because what is essential for their current and future learning is the ability to ask questions. The acquisition of knowledge and learning derives its energy through questioning. If we are to affect real learning, which can never be a one-way channel, learning must be an interaction between the teacher and the student. We must step away from any consideration that it is time consuming to foster a student inquiry, it is actually time efficient in that it has the potential to inform learning within and beyond school, supporting anytime, anywhere, lifelong and life-wide learning.
All active learners need the freedom to question and we need to encourage them to initiate more often. When we embrace the notion that questioning is a special kind of learning we will engage our students in the intellectual process of questioning more often. Research has indicated that students stop asking questions over time. Students don’t stop asking questions because they lose interest, it’s the other way around; they lose interest because they stop asking questions. As educators we have a direct impact on student performance, it is our function to maintain curiosity and actively support student inquiry as much as it is to deliver any given curriculum. If not will we continue to be guilty of unintentional neglect? (Henman 2009)
All too often we are missing the opportunity to cultivate the individual’s quest in favour of curriculum delivery and the need to get through schemes of work. More often we need to adopt thinking around mutual respect within our learning environments as well as actively listening to our students. We need to create contexts where curiosity stimulates situations whereactive participants embrace the mode of inquiry. Where teachers facilitate or guide collaborative or individual learning rather than maintain the teacher as the focus of it. As educators we must satisfy student curiosity with explanation, creating learning environments which are continuously accepting of and encouraging curiosity.
As highly valued knowledge professionals, we create incredible learning for others. As learning leaders we generate human growth, learning and cultivate ideas. To be what we can be as educators our primary role must be to maintain, to nourish, and to celebrate each learner’s individual curiosity and sense of wonder. Every day we need to create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable about raising questions and let our students know that their questions are not only valued, but have an important place in our learning environments. We can be highly responsive to our students needs and continuously challenge students to develop skills and gain new knowledge and understanding. Within our classrooms we need to nurture a genuine attitude of exploration and deep interest in everything, ways of thinking and being. This has the potential for our students to become more confident and flexible, adaptable and active learners.
Curious people will learn how to learn and repeat the process again and again. As often as possible, we want to leave the ideas, the solutions, the suggestions, the purpose, the questioning, and the excitement where it belongs — with our students. Activities which allow more student choice is a start. We can encourage students to learn through active exploration. Encourage questions such as, “What would happen if . . .?” We can also model curiosity, ask questions, engage in exploration alongside students to resolve the questions they pose, we can demonstrate our enthusiasm for curiosity.
Maybe we just need to stand back and ask ourselves the question: Are we like our students, are we driven by the unrestricted desire to understand? By personalising the experience of learning for each student we can encourage them to connect with their own intellectual passions, as well as providing authentic relationships between educators and learners. By focusing upon their curiosity we will continually encourage their desire to learn. Daily we will have the opportunity to inspire curiosity in our students, to make them engaged and independent learners. Put simply, if we want to improve the quality of our students’ thinking we must learn to support them in improving the quality of their questions. Ultimately we will engender in our charges more active and reflective thinking, happy learners in classrooms driven by passion, curiosity, and the occasional dream. If you tell me that curiosity killed the cat…I would say that curiosity was framed! Curiosity merits our attention.
(First Published in the magazine of the European School Heads Association)