What can kids teach us about curiosity?

I recently spent a fascinating morning with students at a local primary school – asking about a concept that I have been increasingly curious about – curiosity.  What did they think it was? Did they think they were curious? How did they know?  What about?  Was curiosity important? Why? How could teachers encourage more of it?  I have read many recent research articles on the subject and was keen to get the children’s ideas. I needn’t have bothered with the articles!  The children’s insights not only affirmed this research– they added so much more.

Working in the field of inquiry learning means I am often faced with teachers who bemoan the fact that students ‘don’t ask questions’ and don’t seem curious (an issue explored in a previous post by Shelley Wright on this blog – “Just Curious” check it out).  Indeed, without curiosity, inquiry-based learning feels inauthentic and dry.  There are multiple reasons for a question-poor classroom, but one may simply be  that curiosity itself is insufficiently nurtured. Curiosity greases the wheel of inquiry.   I learned a lot from the students I spoke with that day. Here are some of their words of wisdom!

“Don’t tell us too much- let us find out – It’s like when someone says they have a present for you.  You want a clue but you don’t want to know the whole thing because that would spoil it and you are not curious anymore”.  

How beautifully this captures the role of the inquiry teacher in provoking curiosity  – and also in providing sufficient scaffolding to enable students to do the thinking for themselves.   The children I spoke to repeatedly emphasized how important it was to have some kind of ‘starting point’ or input.  While they acknowledged it was great to have times when they were free to discover for themselves, they were quick to tell me that they liked it when their teacher answered some of their questions or gave them some information.  As teachers, we need to be strategic about what, how and when we choose to provide this kind of direct input. Too much, too soon and we potentially spoil the joy of discovery.  Not enough and we end up with frustrated learners.

“I’m not really that curious because I go on the internet too much.  If I want to find something out – I just Google it and it is there – so I never really have to be very curious.”

This surprising comment got me thinking about the recent work of John Lehrer (2012) who argues that creativity is something that actually requires persistence, grit and determination.  Maybe this is true of curiosity too?  Part of my role as an inquiry teacher is to ensure that the ‘finding out’ process is experienced in many ways.  Involving students in the often lengthy process of gathering and analyzing primary data through surveys, interviews and observations might well balance those answers they find at the click of a keyboard.

“When you are curious you feel….well, you just HAVE to know! You have to find out. It’s like you want to find out the end of a great story or what happens in the next part of the film”

While the children I spoke with generally described curiosity as “wanting to find something out”  or “having questions” – they expressed this as a feeling rather than a skill. In various ways, they described curiosity as an‘urge’ or a desire.  What a contrast to the manufactured curiosity that groans within some irrelevant inquiry ‘topics’ with which students have no personal connection.  In these cases, questions a feel like a requirement  (eg: dutifully filling in a ‘KWL” chart) rather than coming from a real urge to find out.  Using children’s own interests,  offering compelling experiences and setting authentic problems or tasks can better invite genuine curiosity rather than a ‘sham’ version.

“They should bring stuff in to the room. Like animals. And toys.  And things to play with – for girls and for boys so it is fair.  They should make stuff and have interesting stuff to make and put that all around the room.  And gaming. You should let kids do gaming.”

When asked what teachers could do to bring more curiosity into their classrooms, the children I spoke with talked a lot about objects and visual stimulation – things to see, touch and do.  Entering an early years classroom regularly provokes interest and wonder.  This does NOT mean drenching students in colourful posters, displays or ‘dingle dangles’ that make it almost impossible to move around but, rather, carefully selected objects  and visuals that -in themselves- invite wonder. All classrooms should be places that manifest learning as a multi sensory experience.  Think of what the best museums and galleries do for our curiosity!

“It would be good to have some more time where we get to find things out that we are interested in – like Mandrills. That’s a kind of monkey that I saw at the zoo and I am actually an expert on them but I am quite interested in learning more.” (this was from a 5 year old!)

The pursuit of personal passions was another common theme that emerged across the interviews.   Here, the children confirmed the strange paradox that is curiosity. On the one hand – we are rendered curious by the exotic and the unusual and on the other hand – we can become increasingly intrigued by things of which we already have an understanding.  We just want to know more.  So it seems our classrooms need to places where both contexts are offered to students.   Structures and arrangements like “I-time” “Innovation Day” or “Passion Projects” allow children to wonder about and pursue personal interests.  At the same time,  teachers should continue to ‘bring new ideas about the world’ to students through new texts and contexts about which students may become curious.

“Kids are curious.  But grown ups aren’t really. I think they are too busy. And also – they know most of the stuff whereas kids are still learning so they have to ask lots of questions.  When people get old, they become curious again because….they have more time.  And they kind of remember what it is like to be a kid.”

Without exception, the children I spoke to did not associate ‘curiosity’ with the majority of adults in their lives (their teachers and parents). They had all sorts of theories about why that was the case but it left me with an uneasy feeling.  Are teachers simply failing to SHOW their curiosity to their students?  Are we still essentially trapped in the archaic notion of ‘teacher knows all’  OR have we suppressed that natural instinct to the point where we really don’t have much of an urge to discover new things.   And if the latter is the case – what on earth are we doing working with children?

Let’s be ferociously curious – with and for our students.  Let’s show students that being an adult does NOT mean that we stop being curious – that it is a life-long disposition.  Let’s wonder aloud.  Let’s show OUR excitement when we make a discovery.  Let’s add our questions to the wonderwall.  Let’s share stories of things we are intrigued, puzzled and amazed by.  Let’s NOTICE our curiosity in our daily lives as teachers and as learners – and outwardly relish its presence because, as one of my wise young inquirers said:

“Without curiosity, there is no finding out.   Being curious means that there is always something to look forward to.”

Are you a curious teacher? What do your kids think about curiosity?

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3 Responses to What can kids teach us about curiosity?

  1. katenonesuch says:

    I think it’s my own curiousity that drives me as a teacher. I want to know about how people learn, how they react to one way of teaching rather than another, what would work in a situation where I’m having trouble facilitating learning…. My curiousity keeps me from getting bored as I teach the same skills over and over, and see the same mistakes and problem areas for students. It makes sense that the primary rule in my classes is “refuse to be bored.” http://katenonesuch.com/2012/06/21/refuse-to-be-bored/

  2. Pingback: The Curious Pursuit of Greatness « Life is Mysterious

  3. I’m so glad I found this post. Your first person sources are wise indeed, and your suggestions are spot-on. I’m one of the “bemoaners”, but no more moaning. It’s time to rethink the asking/telling balance, the richness of the inquiry pathways, my learning environment, and the choices offered. My Middle School students may have lost some of their natural curiosity, may have a dulled sense of wonder, may even be afraid to express their passion, but I can and I will use every tool I can muster to change that state. Thanks for your contribution to the toolbox!

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