I’ve always been curious. In one of my more memorable childhood experiments, I decided (age 5) that it was very important to know how loudly I could scream. I mean, if I never tried screaming my loudest, how would I know how loud I could be? What if something terrible happened and I wasn’t good at screaming? So, as any curious five-year-old would do, I decided I’d better find out. I went outside and screamed as loudly as I could—just so I’d know. I was genuinely surprised when my poor mother came flying out the back door anticipating disaster. It hadn’t occurred to me to share my plans with her. I was always wondering about something; that one just didn’t seem that different.
I remember a number of my less dramatic childhood explorations—using a magnet to “fish” for iron in the backyard dirt, tempting ants with different foods to see what they’d eat, looking for fossil rocks. I’ve always suspected the vividness of those memories was tied to my happiness in exploration, and I’m sure that’s true, but recently I read about some research that suggests there may be more to it. My memories may also be tied to my curiosity.
A recent study published in Neuron found that the brain’s activity changes when we are curious. The same brain circuits that “light up” when people are energized to seek out rewarding things like money or candy also are active when we are curious. But perhaps more exciting for educators, people appear to learn material better when they are curious about it. In fact, in the study, people who were curious didn’t just learn the things that intrigued them, they also learned more incidental information that was presented at the same time as the things that made them curious.
I can almost hear the experienced educators out there saying, “Well, duh! Of course kids learn more when they are interested and excited about learning. We’ve known that forever.” True. We have. Intuitively. But now we have data. The next time someone questions why you are taking the time to have students ask questions, solve problems or get exciting about learning, you can say, “I’m so glad you asked that question. Let me share the research about how my students’ curiosity will help them learn better.” You might start by sharing the NPR interview introducing the research.
Teaching is not just about delivering content in neat packages. Interest matters. Curiosity helps students learn. Students who are curious about something in the situation will learn more about the situation as a whole. It isn’t often when I read about research and want to shout “Amen!” but this study did it.
Of course there is lots more to learn. We don’t know how long the “curiosity effect” lasts. If students are curious at 9 a.m., will their learning still be enhanced at 9:30? At 3:00? How much does the effect vary among individuals? By age? We don’t know. But doesn’t it make you curious?
What do you do to help students become more curious? Want to share? We’ll all learn more!
Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014) States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84, 2, 486 – 496