By Gerald Aungst
Human beings are wired to wonder: curiosity is built into each of us, and it is what drives us to learn. Shouldn’t school be built on a foundation of curiosity?
On the first day of Kindergarten, the children who step into our schools are bursting with curiosity about the world. Then we systematically train them to ignore or suppress that curiosity and instead focus on what we want them to learn. But everything about school could instead be designed to take advantage of that natural curiosity and use it as the driving force for student learning, including the things we think are important.
Teaching is something that is done to students. Teaching is adult-centered and focused on delivery. We are often told that we should instead be facilitators, “guides on the side,” and co-learners with our students. But how do we do that when everything about our jobs pulls us back to delivering content?
If teachers started thinking of themselves instead as “Curiosity Engineers,” I believe classrooms might start to look more like the student-centered spaces they need to be, and teachers would have a frame of reference that helps them stay in that mindset. To do that, though, we need to understand how curiosity works.
How Curiosity Works
“Curiosity is a willing, a proud, and eager confession of ignorance.” (Leonard Rubinstein)
Psychologists have been studying curiosity off and on since the mid-twentieth century. One theory about learning and behavior is called “Drive Theory”–it says there are instinctual needs such as hunger, thirst, and sex, which drive us towards certain behaviors. For example, hunger drives us to eat. Curiosity has many similar features to primary drives. In other words, we are wired to wonder.
We also know that learners are most curious when they have some understanding of a concept or piece of information but are not confident in their knowledge. When they have no idea, or when they are extremely confident, they have little curiosity. Curiosity therefore requires a base of knowledge and some experience.
Studies have also shown that people who are more curious during learning experiences show better learning, even for things they weren’t curious about. So if we can activate a student’s curiosity during a lesson, even if it is just about one part of the concept, they will learn everything better.
5 Factors that Produce Curiosity
Research into curiosity is still developing. Although curiosity is difficult to study, according to one model, psychologists have identified five factors that produce curiosity. The job of a curiosity engineer is then to design experiences and environments that will take advantage of each one and put students in situations that will maximize the impact of their natural curiosity to improve learning. Let’s look at each of the five factors and how you can use it to engineer a curiosity-centered classroom.
When a person becomes aware that there is a gap in their knowledge, when they know they do not yet know everything about a topic or concept, curiosity kicks in and drives them to want to fill in that gap. Take advantage of that by:
• Creating a baseline experience in something new to activate student curiosity to dig deeper and learn more.
• Planning experiences with breakpoints to pause and reflect.
• Putting the KWHL chart in the middle of the lesson instead of the beginning.
Rich questions naturally lead to more intense curiosity and deeper learning.
• Focus on open-ended questions which promote discussion and argument.
• Start every lesson or unit with a question: Why? How might we? What if?
• Teach students to ask their own questions. The Question Formulation Technique is an excellent approach (http://rightquestion.org/).
• Build a “hunch board” with a running collection of questions and problems along with student ideas about answers and solutions.
Mysteries are one of the most popular genres of TV, film, and literature for a reason: we want to know the solution. Mysteries are a powerful way to foster curiosity in the classroom:
• Present mysteries for students to solve and discrepancies for them to wonder about.
• Create a classroom makerspace with areas for exploration such as a device autopsy area or reverse engineering a device.
• Create areas with tools, materials and no explanation.
This is not about having disagreements. Conflict is the engine of stories, and our brains are naturally attuned to storytelling. Conflict is also about situations with an unknown resolution, or about making a prediction and testing it to find out if that prediction is correct. To engineer curiosity using conflict:
• Design lessons and projects around storytelling.
• Create something that helps to resolve a conflict (real or imagined). For example, ask students to design a machine that would make life easier for a character in a book.
• Challenges: Can you build something that flies? Can you create something that makes someone happy?
Any time our brain encounters something new, it becomes more alert and more focused. When that novelty is unexpected, it also sparks curiosity. We want to know why things changed, or we may notice new things we didn’t see before that make us realize we didn’t really understand things as well as we thought. To surprise your students and make them more curious:
• Include whimsy, humor, and the unexpected.
• Occasionally break the rules.
• Rearrange the space regularly.
• Have centers that rotate and are only out for a limited time.
Curiosity occurs naturally, and we can take advantage when it shows up on its own in our classrooms. But if we actively plan how to engineer that curiosity, by consciously designing lessons, projects, and even the space in which the learning takes place around things we know will foster curious minds, we don’t have to just hope that some of our students might be curious sometimes. We can ensure that curiosity is a significant factor for all of our students every day.