Sadly, as I’ve noted previously, curiosity isn’t necessarily welcomed in many school environments. One of my favorite curiosity researchers, Susan Engel, describes a study in which she and her students set out to learn about how curiosity might be exhibited in fifth grade and in kindergarten. Sadly, the project turned out to be impossible. There simply were too few expressions of curiosity—even among the kindergarten students—to make reasonable analyses. So what happened? Just a few short years before, those kindergarteners had undoubtedly been driving nearby adults crazy with their constant questioning. Where did it go?
One clue comes from another of her studies, illustrating how tiny interactions affect students’ choices to explore—or not. In that study, teacher/researcher worked with individual students to complete a popular “bouncing raisins” activity, observing raisins rise and fall in a glass of water, vinegar, and baking soda. With some students, as the researcher began to pick up materials from the activity, she picked up a Skittle and dropped it in the glass saying, “I wonder what would happen if we dropped a Skittle in instead?” With other students she just picked up materials and left them nearby. Then the researcher left the room, purportedly to get more materials, telling students they could do anything they chose while she was gone—use the materials, draw with crayons, or just wait. Students who had seen the teacher exhibit curiosity, even that briefly, were more likely to explore and experiment further with the materials. Other children tended to just sit and wait. Young people watch us. If we are curious, they feel freed to be curious, too.
So, why wouldn’t a teacher demonstrate curiosity? Again, a clue comes from Engel and colleagues. In another version of the bouncing raisin activity, the teachers were the research subjects and the students were assistant researchers. Before the activity, some teachers were told that the purpose of the activity was to help students “learn about science.” Other teachers were told the purpose was to help students “complete the activity.” This time it was the student who took a Skittle from the table and dropped it in the glass to see what would happen. Teachers who were told to focus on teaching science were more likely to respond with interest and encouragement. Teachers who were focused on completing the activity prompted students to return to the worksheet. And the sad thing is, when questioned, all the teachers believed they had been encouraging of students’ curiosity. They did not realize how much the directions they—the teachers—received had influenced students’ opportunities.
It seems the ways we think about, and respond to, our most basic school interactions can have a huge impact on our students’ curiosity and opportunities to develop creativity. Here are the lessons I take from that research.
- The ways we, as teachers, respond to students’ curiosity—even in small ways—can significantly impact their likelihood to continue curious.
- The ways those of us who lead schools and supervise teachers describe our goals for students can significantly impact the ways teachers respond to students’ curiosity.
- But, as teachers, we can’t leave the responsibility of framing our goals to our supervisors. My husband’s graduate advisor repeatedly told them that as actors, it was their responsibility to protect themselves from bad directors through their own preparation and concentration as an actor. As teachers, regardless of the immediate goals set by others, we must remember that our aim is not to complete a worksheet or even attain a test score. Our goal is to help students learn. If we keep that in mind, we are likely to help them be curious as well.
How do we manage that? What do you think?
Engel, S. (2011). Children’s need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 625-645.
Engel, S. (2015). The hungry mind: The origins of curiosity in childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Engel, S. & Randall, K. (2009). How teachers respond to children’s inquiry. American Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 183–202.