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Curiosity: The Gateway to Learning.

While researching curiosity for a section of my book, The Education Kids Deserve, I came across this compelling quote in Psychology Today. “What makes children want to learn? According to research, it’s the joy of exploration - a hidden force that drives learning, critical thinking and reasoning. We call this curiosity.” (Price-Mitchell 2015)

Balance that statement with this rather scathing assessment that is the product of the collective thinking of participants at a 2016 Education Imagination retreat. “If education is meant to stimulate imagination, creativity and intellectual exploration, then the American system fails miserably, mainly due to a hyper- specialized focus on testable outcomes, an inordinate focus on the three Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic) and a reliance on measures of standardized achievement as a way to define and judge good teaching and learning.”

Where is "the joy of exploration" in their assessment?

The word “curiosity” is associated with the irregular form of the Latin verb cura: to worry or care about, to cure. It is closest in meaning to the word “inquisitive” which also has a Latin root quaere: to search into or seek. All children are born with immense curiosity. A child’s very survival is dependent on their ability to begin making sense of the stimuli around them. Their innate curiosity will cause them to focus on distant objects and find ways to bring them into their life. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with a young child knows they ask dozens of questions a day, with seeming disregard to the answer given. Their purpose is to ask and then form their own conclusions in what feels like a never ending cycle of curious inquiry. In an attempt to describe Sigmund Freud’s insight into the power of childhood curiosity, Adam Phillips wrote: “He is addicted to, driven by, what he doesn’t know.” Curiosity is the “hidden force” behind all learning. That is, until they arrive at the schoolhouse.

If one's innate curiosity is a cornerstone of their practical learning and intellectual development, why doesn't it figure prominently in schools? Consider these three statements.

1. “One of the greatest challenges of educators today is fostering intrinsic motivation in learners - encouraging a love of, a desire for, lifelong learning. Research that provides a framework for designing instruction that stimulates and sustains curiosity may provide one giant step in that direction.” (Arnone and Small 1995)

2. “Curiosity is an aspect of intrinsic motivation that has great potential to enhance student learning.” (Pluck and Johnson 2011)

3. “School could be a place for all students to experience unrestricted curiosity, but it isn’t.” (Shonstrom 2014)

What strikes me about these three statements, each in support of fostering curiosity in our classrooms, is the period of nineteen years that they span. Add five more years to bring us to 2019 and we face the hard truth that the American educational system has ignored something that is of tremendous potential benefit to students, something that is right under its nose, something that would not require an infusion of funding, for at least a quarter of a century. Isn’t it time to ask the question? What if we sought systematic and effective ways to foster curiosity in children once they enter school? What if the inclusion of curiosity could promote greater academic and personal student achievement through an increased sense of relevance?

Susan Engel is considered to be an expert of curiosity and the role it could, and should, play in the education of our children. She writes: “Children learn more, remember longer, and are more interested in pursuing a topic when the activity or material sparks their curiosity and when they are provided opportunities to find answers to their questions.” (2009) “Amidst the country’s standardized testing mania, schools are missing what really matters about learning: the desire to learn in the first place.” (2015) “Given that curiosity has such a positive impact on learning, you might assume that teachers are doing everything they can to encourage it. But, that is not the case.” (2013)

The good news is that this unfortunate circumstance can be reversed if, and only if, our public education system is willing to recognize that our current preoccupation and fixation on standardization is a broken model, and is ready to chart a new course of action, a course that embraces student curiosity. While we cannot create it, we can enhance curiosity through deliberate attention to environmental factors. We can nurture curiosity within classroom cultures that thrive on quality relationships, environments where the role of the teacher is to facilitate learning rather than serve as the keeper of information, and within classrooms where students are permitted, encouraged, to explore, to inquire, to ponder, to question. It's what Ken Robinson terms "creating climates of possibility." (2015)

I frequently defer to the wisdom and insight of my go-to guru in the field of curiosity and creativity in schools, Sir Ken Robinson. He writes: “So, in place of curiosity, what we have is a culture of compliance. Our children and teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms rather than to excite that power of imagination and curiosity.” (2013)

There is a lot of ground to cover on this important topic. Curiosity, and its deliberate inclusion as an instructional tool, is deserving of our thoughtful exploration and will be the focus of my blog for the next several weeks. Stay tuned!

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