The secret to being a lifelong learner is both obvious and surprising. Lifelong learners share a common characteristic: an insatiable curiosity. Curiosity can be compared to radar. It constantly “pings” the environment to discover what is interesting, new, and worthy of attention. People who are curious are usually aware of approaching change well before others who wait until they experience its presence. Curious people ask questions, seek information, and try to understand the world around them. In fact, curiosity is a better predictor of success in life than intelligence and socioeconomic status.
Remarkably, curiosity is built-in for most humans. We are born curious. Curiosity is the source of most learning – and many mishaps early in life. Young children are known for constantly asking questions, often to the frustration of their parents.
Unfortunately, over time children often become less curious and more inclined to wait until told what to do and what to learn, at least in school. This trend is not an accident. Traditional school experiences are designed to have students sit still, comply, and wait for instructions from adults. In fact, much of the job description and expectations for early grade teachers are focused on getting students ready to engage in receptive, passive student roles.
For some students, curiosity is not extinguished, rather it becomes a driver of learning outside of school. For others, the definition of learning becomes what is expected in school and curiosity is pushed aside. And still others do not lose their curiosity. They continue to ask, wonder, and seek information and understanding often to the chagrin of their teachers.
This issue is even more crucial for students who come from families living in poverty. A 2018 study from Pediatric Research found that curiosity plays an even larger role in accelerating the achievement of students from lower socioeconomic environments. In fact, students from lower SES environments with high levels of curiosity appeared to perform at the same levels as their more SES advantaged counterparts. However, we need to protect and nurture curiosity for it to survive the traditional structures and expectations of schools.
So, how can we nurture and protect curiosity? For students who come to school with well-established curiosity, we need to encourage and feed it in every way we can, including tolerance of seemingly incessant questions, occasional distractions, and periodic obsessions with their latest passion. We need to search for ways to connect required learning to their interests and, when possible, give them space, support, and opportunities to explore.
We can build curiosity by asking interesting, open-ended questions. Of course, this strategy requires us to know our students well enough to determine what questions and topics they will find interesting. Why do you think, what do you predict, and what might you do next questions are good stems to stimulate curiosity. However, we need to be patient, respectful, and responsive to their wonderings.
Further, we need to resist the temptation to step in immediately and provide direction when students struggle while engaged in learning they find interesting and purposeful. A suggestion, hint, or coaching comment can help without stealing ownership for learning. A sense of accomplishment and openness to pursue the next challenge is often influenced by past success in the face of struggles.
Additionally, we can challenge students to make connections among ideas, items, and experiences that can lead to new discoveries and insights. How can a caterpillar become a butterfly? How can an airplane fly when an apple falls to the ground? Why do we become tired after running, but not so much after talking? Even better: Invite students to define their own questions and challenges.
We know that curiosity prepares the brain for learning and learning that results from curiosity is more rewarding than the learning that is served to us. How might we leverage what we know to make learning more enjoyable and a passion to pursue for life?
Source: Shah, P. E., Weeks, H. M., Richards, B., & Kaciroti, N. (2018). Early childhood curiosity and kindergarten reading and math academic achievement. Pediatric Research, 84(3), 380-386. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-018-0039-3