We all know that curiosity killed the cat, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too eager to encourage it. Yet it’s possible to see that the discouragement of curiosity as a means of preventing people from asking what if? What if the world was more equitable, who gave the authorities the right to tell me how to worship, what happens if everyone votes?
It’s not simply a matter of old phrases, or demands for engagement in the world around us. There is a growing academic body of work which shows that questioning, and curiosity, actually enhances the ability to learn. Curious students not only ask questions, but also actively seek out the answers. Chip Bruce’s work on the Inquiry Cycle describes learning in terms of a continuous dynamic of ask, investigate, create, discuss and reflect.
Leo Casey has pointed out the importance of questions saying, “Questions are the root of inquiry; they initiate, sustain and invigorate each aspect of the process. Questions direct investigation, drive creativity, stimulate discussion and are the bedrock of reflection. In order to understand inquiry we need to deal with questions.”
Neuroscience is also beginning to reflect the importance of questions. A neurological study in 2014 showed that curiosity makes our brains more receptive to learning, and that as we learn, we enjoy the sensation of learning. Fancy that, encouraging children to enjoy learning!
The researchers found that the more curious we are about a topic, the easier it is to learn information about that topic. Once the subjects' curiosity had been aroused, they were better at learning and remembering completely unrelated information. Dr. Matthias Gruber, of University of California at Davis said, "Curiosity may put the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it."
So if a teacher is able to stimulate students' curiosity about something they're interested in learning about, they'll be better able to learn things that they would normally consider boring or difficult. For example, if a student struggles with mathematics, personalising the topic to match a student’s specific interests, rather than using generic textbook questions, could help them better remember how to address similar problems in the future.
As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes, it's the question that stimulates curiosity -- being told the answer stops curiosity in its tracks before it can even get going. That is why the Learn2Think Foundation is researching ways to encourage questioning, to build stronger questions, and to ensure that teachers and students find ways of questioning together. Our first pilot launches in Spring 2019 so drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to learn more.
Remember as Albert Einstein said, ““I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.”