I’ve been thinking about curiosity and how to spark it. My colleague Anne Stevenson recently asked why the innate skill of asking questions tends to drop off as we move through school and into careers. This prompted me to look a bit more deeply into how we can more intentionally develop curiosity as a skill in our youth programs.
A study published in Neuron last fall about the science of curiosity confirmed that when people are curious, they:
- Learn more
- Remember better
- Absorb incidental material (the boring stuff) better than they ordinarily would
We create the most effective learning experiences when we stimulate learner curiosity. But what do we do when curiosity seems stagnant? Is curiosity a skill that can be learned and strengthened?
As it turns out, the answer is yes – but it takes effort to make the continual development of curiosity a priority in our lives. Kashdan has a few ideas for invigorating innate curiosity.
The more we learn about something, the more we tend to want to grow that understanding. Questions about what we have just learned naturally come up, and with them, a desire to find answers.
Thrive on uncertainty
For experiences such as sport-games or movies, not knowing the outcome means we are more likely to enjoy watching. Similarly, uncertainty can be a powerful motivator for learning. And while we wouldn’t choose to fill our lives with the more stressful situations of uncertainty (will I get the job, where will I get my next meal), it is worth making sure that our lives have an element of surprise—take the path less traveled, try that new dish, meet someone new—rather than completely rely on routine and familiarity, in order to nurture curiosity.
My colleague Cathy Jordan blogged about the importance of play; she described the “fun activities” as a critical part of the school day within a kindergarten classroom (though not just for kindergarteners). And in Whole Brain Teaching, fun is the backbone of a brain-based learning movement that shows how people learn more efficiently when they’re having fun.
As learners in a formal setting, we often don’t have the authority or permission to incorporate fun and play into the experience. But as facilitators, we can make sure that our youth have the opportunity to experience learning in a way that maximizes interest.
See the extraordinary in the ordinary
This strategy forces you to see things in a new way. Think of a mundane or boring topic or task, and then force yourself to look for something novel or unexpected. Kashdan cites a study that shows that subjects who have experienced this process of discovery were more likely to do their “boring tasks” without being prompted. But I can see how this strategy would not only change the task or topic into something more worthy of effort or thought and therefore less dreadful, but it would also, if employed as a regular habit, serve to strengthen one’s ability to create interest where there seemingly is none.
I can think of other strategies that may be useful in strengthening curiosity as a skill—for instance, nurturing failure as a welcome part of the creative process. Failure should be taught as a good thing (rather than something to be avoided at all costs) in relation to learning and building curiosity. But the main strategy that I would advocate for in building curiosity is teaching it intentionally as a necessary life skill that we can develop. Each of us tends to exercise these strategies, at least unconsciously, at one point or another. But when we use them intentionally, we begin to create valuable habits that ultimately result in stronger minds and better learning experiences.
How can we make curiosity itself a topic of learning in our youth programs? What are the barriers to developing and maintaining curiosity? What are other strategies you can think of that would help learners develop curiosity as a skill?
-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator
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