Educators across the country share the concern that too many students fell behind in their learning progress over the past year. Addressing this concern is important, but we need to be thoughtful about the strategies we use and the learning experiences we present to students. In our drive to have students demonstrate proficiency and meet expectations, we also need to attend to building strong relationships with learning and a drive to learn. Having students catch up now only to fall behind again in the future accomplishes little.
Fortunately, there is a powerful way to build learning momentum and instill the drive to learn without adding significant time and effort to our work this summer and beyond. The answer sounds simple but powerful in its results. Multiple research studies and decades of professional experience testify to its potential to propel learning and lead to lifelong success.
That powerful factor is curiosity. Humans are naturally curious. However, the environment students experience in school often discounts and even stifles curiosity in favor of pre-staged experiences, predetermined processes, pre-answered questions, and predicable outcomes. Consequently, students often do not see schools as places where curiosity is valued and appreciated.
A recent study conducted by Pediatric Research found that curiosity is a key factor in predicting the learning achievement of students regardless of socio-economic background. However, for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the impact was even more powerful. Students from lower-socio economic backgrounds with high levels of curiosity were found to perform at the same levels of students from more advantaged backgrounds, thus erasing the too frequent presence of an achievement gap.
Curiosity is a key driver of learning regardless of age. When we tap the curiosity of our students as part of the learning process, they learn more easily, they remember what they learn longer, and often learn at a deeper level. Further, as students become habitually curious, they become more independent in their learning as they search for information and answers important to them.
How can we stimulate and reinforce the curiosity of our students? Here are six steps to consider:
- Make the learning environment safe and respectful. Curiosity grows best when students feel safe. Curiosity is often demonstrated in the questions students ask and students need to feel safe enough to risk asking.
- Ask interesting, open-ended questions. We can give students reasons to be curious if we present them with conundrums and inquiries that connect to their experiences and interests. We also need to be patient and take a coaching stance rather than default to providing immediate answers.
- Be curious about students and their interests and obsessions. Our interest and questions can show respect for and validate what is important to our students. Our questions and interest also model our curiosity.
- Treat mistakes as opportunities to discover and learn. Mistakes can have many causes. Helping students to understand and work through their mistakes can build confidence and perseverance, two key contributors to remaining curious.
- Teach students to be observant. Being aware and noticing are two of the most important sources of curiosity. Coach students to notice their environment and pay attention to what may be interesting, mysterious, and worth exploring.
- Reinforce with students how their curiosity can benefit them. Share with students how curiosity has led to important inventions and discoveries. Highlight historical figures whose questions, imagination, designing, and creating led to a life of success and satisfaction.
Obviously, there are many more ways we can stimulate and reinforce the curiosity in our students. However, our patience, attention, and encouragement when we encounter curiosity in our students can give them confidence to pursue what interests them and become lifelong learners. This summer is a great time to launch our students on this journey.
Hassinger-Das, B., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2018). Appetite for knowledge: curiosity and children’s academic achievement. Pediatric Research, 84, 323-324. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-018-0099-4