I’ve been wondering about curiosity lately. Anyone who has ever spent time with toddlers knows they are full of questions. “Why is my cat fluffier than Jane’s cat?” “Where does milk go when I drink it?” “What is dirt made of?” “Why can’t I eat it?” “How many stars are in the sky?”
And yet, when students are in school—a place where the answers to questions should be abundant—questioning seems to vanish. In her essay “Children’s Need to Know” Susan Engel titles one section “Childhood: From Intrepid Explorer to Well-Behaved Scholar.” What a sad and apt description of the transitions in P-12 education. Engel describes a research project in which she and colleagues tried to study the types of curiosity children exhibited in school, and how curiosity might differ among children and across classrooms. The study turned out to be impossible, not because of any problem with the research procedures, but because so little curiosity was expressed in classrooms that comparisons were impossible. Engel asked,
What might account for the difference between the kind of exploration and question asking noted in toddlerhood and preschool and the stunning lack of such inquiry in school-aged children? What happens during childhood to prune away so much spontaneous investigation and eagerness for new information?
The good news—and the bad news—is that, at least in part, the answer started with the adults. In one study, Engel and her student Hilary Hackman built a “curiosity box” with drawers full of intriguing objects to be explored. They found that students in some classrooms—regardless of grade level—were much more likely to explore the box than students in other classes. What made the difference? Students in classrooms in which the teachers smiled more and were more encouraging were more likely to explore. In a follow-up study, they found that even brief interactions with an adult who demonstrated curious behavior made a difference in how much students explored themselves.
So what’s killing curiosity? Not surprisingly, in school we get the behaviors we value—or at least the things children think we value. If we are so focused on pre-established curriculum goals that any other questions are treated as a nuisance, it should not be a big surprise that students are less likely to ask questions. If exploration is met with a growl rather than a smile, it can be extinguished quite handily. If our goal is “well-behaved scholars” (and if by “scholars” we mean adept test-takers), we can get them—but at a cost.
Fortunately, there is another way. If we want students who ask questions, explore, and wonder, we can get them. We don’t need to give up curriculum goals, just add to them. Explore another way to conduct the experiment; imagine another ending to the story; ask “what if?” And if students ask a question that could take you off course, smile and let them know it’s a great question. Sometimes you may be able to explore right then; sometimes it might wait for another day. But either way you’ve taught that curiosity is a good thing. And, in the long run, what will help students’ learning more than that?
Engel, S. (2011). Children’s need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81, 4, 625-645.