Focus: How curiosity is key to learning

All children are natural intellectuals when they are given opportunities to test their powers of inquiry. Wendy Berliner argues for a new approach in the classroom which embraces a culture of curiosity, fuelling children with a thirst for knowledge that can empower their educational careers.

Wendy Berliner

It's a lively class of boys and girls learning science with a little bit of help from ancient Egypt. The aim is to work out how the Pyramids could have been built long before there were cranes and machinery to help with all the heavy lifting and the children are going to do that with their own experiments in class. It's an inquiry-based approach to learning about the science of force and it's fun.

Children are split into groups of three and four and each group is given the same materials – small dowels and bars and a Newton meter to measure force. The class is expected to learn that by using the dowels as mini rollers it will take less force to move the bars which are standing in for blocks of heavy ancient Egyptian stone.

Each group gets to work and is given a work sheet drawn up by their teacher to record what they do with their dowels and bars and to answer questions as they make their discoveries.

As the teacher walks among the busy children, it soon becomes clear that one group has forgotten the work sheet and been carried away by the sheer joy of experimentation. They are using the dowels as a conveyor belt but they are also using the bar and dowels to build their own pyramid and dangling the bar from a string attached to the measuring device to see what happens.

The teacher intervenes and says: ‘Now, now kids enough of that. There will be time for experimenting at recess. This is time for science.’

What she is seeing is children messing around a bit and not concentrating on the worksheet which she needs them to do to complete their science task. What she isn't seeing, even though they are right in front of her, is a group of curious children who are ‘doing science’ and are so bowled over by the thrill of learning through curiosity that they are intent on answering their own questions – the best type of learning.

And not only is she discouraging them from using their curiosity to the full, she is giving them a lesson that only certain kinds of science experiments are allowed, the ones that a teacher sanctions, not something that comes from your own curiosity and imagination. That's for recess. That's for playtime. That implies the children's off piste ideas are not even real learning.

Bad prognosis for curiosity

And therein lies a great difficulty that lurks in classrooms across the world. Children's curiosity is being squeezed out of the very place it should be nurtured, often by a culture of testing, learning objectives and exam results which has no room for curiosity if the source of that curiosity is not in the lesson plan. There is simply not enough time for it in the eyes of many hard-pressed teachers.

And that is a very bad prognosis for curiosity when you remember it is at the heart of learning and at the heart of much of the stellar advance of the human race over everything else that shares the planet with us. We need more of it, not less if we are to solve the problems we confront.

Once you start to teach children not to be curious you are limiting everyone's possibilities. If you don't believe that, look no further than a study of high performing students in America (Hulme, 2013) who were found to be less curious because they saw curiosity as a risk to their results. The questions they asked were aimed at improving their results whereas the questions asked by more curious students were around understanding a topic more deeply.

Those curious elementary school children were admonished for being too curious with their experiments and while they come from America, they could come from almost anywhere.

The scene itself was witnessed by Professor Susan Engel, an international expert on curiosity in children whose research has uncovered an alarming drop off in it among children, measured by the numbers of questions they ask, as soon as they start school.

Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and founding director of the teaching programme at Williams College, Massachusetts, uncovered this when she monitored the number of questions being asked by children in a suburban elementary school in the US.

Her research revealed a chilling lack of curiosity among the children. The youngest were asking only between two and five questions in a two-hour period. Even worse, the ten and 11-year-olds were asking no questions in class during two-hour periods.

In the light of research (Chouinard 2007) that has found that four children studied between the ages of 14 months and five years-old asked an average of 107 questions per hour (one child was asking more than three questions a minute at his peak), it is easy to see children must be learning very quickly when they get to school that it isn't a place for their unscripted questions.

Making learning stick

Albert Einstein said it was a miracle that curiosity survived formal schooling and if he was still around today, he might still be saying it.

Yet curiosity is essential for real learning to stick and develop and the latest research in this area is proving that in spades. It is not only finding that the most curious children perform better at school, it is finding that curiosity boosts your performance regardless of whether you come from a poor or affluent home. Indeed, the link between better performance and curiosity is even stronger in children coming from more disadvantaged homes.

‘The teacher intervenes and says: ‘Now, now kids enough of that. There will be time for experimenting at recess. This is time for science.’

Curiosity can be as important as focus for educational outcomes.

These findings offer societies across the world a potential solution to the stubborn performance gap between rich and poor children. But only if there is a place for curiosity and children's questions in the classroom. It is evidence of the critical importance for early years educators and their colleagues in schools as well as education policy makers.

The research is highlighted in a new book I've written with fellow journalist, Judith Judd, entitled How to Succeed at School. Separating Fact from Fiction. What Every Parent Should Know. It comes from a research team at the University of Michigan, C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and the Center for Human Growth and Development who were investigating curiosity in 6,200 children who are part of the Millennium Cohort of the US Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

Questionnaires and home visits were used to gauge levels of curiosity when the children were in kindergarten (the first year of school) and it was clear from the results of these assessments that the children who were the most curious were performing best at school.

Most interestingly, disadvantaged children had the strongest connection between curiosity and performance. Researchers suggested this could be because children from disadvantaged homes had fewer resources in terms of books and cultural opportunities, and they flourished at school if they were given opportunities to develop their curiosity.

If so, this made it important for schools to offer those opportunities.

Seeking answers to the unknown

Dr Prachi Shah is an associate professor and developmental and behavioural paediatrician at the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital and an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan's Center for Human Growth and Development, and she led the research.

She says: ‘Promoting curiosity in children, especially those from environments of economic disadvantage may be an important, under recognised way to address the achievement gap. Promoting curiosity is a foundation for early learning that we should be emphasising more when we look at academic achievement.’

Shah and her team defined curiosity as ‘the joy of discovery and the desire for exploration … characterised by the motivation to seek answers to the unknown’, and indeed the results of their research found that the aspect of curiosity most strongly associated with higher academic achievement was the construct of ‘shows eagerness to learn new things’.

The researchers made a further significant finding when they discovered that the association of curiosity with better reading and maths outcomes at kindergarten, especially for children from poorer homes, was independent of effortful control.

The results showed that curiosity was just as important as focus when it came to good performance and particularly so for children from poor homes. In fact, they were still doing better at school if they were curious, even if they did find it harder to focus. Shah says: ‘These findings suggest that although effortful control has been emphasised as an important prerequisite for early academic achievement, curiosity is also important, and may be especially important for children from environments of economic disadvantage.

‘Encouraging curiosity in young children and cultivating their eagerness to learn may be a potential intervention target to foster early reading and maths academic achievement at kindergarten age and may be particularly advantageous for children with low socioeconomic status.’

Learning to shut up

No-one is suggesting that teachers don't value curiosity. The problem they can face is that they have so many priorities when it comes to the targets they have to hit, the results they have to deliver, that other things take centre stage and child generated curiosity gets squeezed into the shadows.

When Susan Engel and her student, Hilary Hackmann, gave teachers a list of things that were most important to acquire at school the teachers would often circle the word ‘curiosity’ – if it appeared in that list. But when teachers were asked to name what was most important to acquire at school – with no list provided – they invariably never mentioned curiosity. And this, despite decades of academic work which has proved the crucial importance of curiosity to learning.

Engel, author of The Hungry Mind and who is now writing a book on children's ideas remarks: ‘When you visit schools in many different parts of the world it can be difficult to remember that they are full of active intellectual children because no one is talking about their inner mental lives. How well they behave, and how they perform seems much more important to many people in the educational communities.’

Susan Engel's work does not stand in isolation. Research in London published in 1984 by the distinguished British researchers Professors Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes documented the conversations of 30 three and four-year-old girls who were fitted with smocks into which had been sewn small tape recorders.

They found the children asked an average of 26 questions an hour when they were home with their mothers, although one particularly curious girl was recorded asking 145 questions an hour.

At home, they found the children's conversation was rich and varied as they attempted to make sense of the world with their questions, although even at this age girls described as ‘middle class’ were asking nearly twice as many questions based on curiosity – rather than questions based on challenge to the parent – than girls described as ‘working class’.

Regardless of class, once inside the school building these lively little girls seemed suddenly to lose their tongues and only asked an average of just two questions an hour – the same as the bottom figure of questions asked by those American elementary children Susan Engel monitored.

How can this happen? How can lively little minded little children start to shut up when they get to school and become more like elective mutes on the question front while they are still in primary school?

The need to question accompanies an eagerness to learn that teachers should actively encourage.

Some of it will be down to children knowing more and needing to ask fewer questions about the basics as they grow up. The ‘Why is the sky blue? or ‘Where do babies come from?’ type of question. But that shouldn't mean questions dry up entirely. We don't live long enough to run out of them if we stay curious.

Lost learning opportunities

So how are most children learning to stop asking questions about things that interest them?

Here again Susan Engel's research in those American classrooms throws unremitting light on what is going on. The transcripts of the observations noted by Engel and her education research students did occasionally note a child asking a question that might lead the discussion in another direction, but when that happened the teacher would not answer it to avoid having the lesson move off track. Sometimes they would put the child off kindly, sometimes less so.

In one classroom she recalls a 9th grade girl, who would have been 14 or 15 years-old and who clearly had clung on to her curiosity, raising her hand to ask if there were any places in the world where no one made art. The teacher was talking about art. The teacher cut her off by saying: ‘Zoe, no questions now, please; it's time for learning.’

How long would it have taken that teacher to answer the question? Or tell Zoe what an interesting question it was and suggest she researched the answer and report back to the rest of the class next time?

Perhaps the teacher responded in such a discouraging way because there was a researcher observing the class and the teacher didn't want any distractions.

Perhaps the teacher didn't know the answer herself – but there is no shame in acknowledging you don't know something, even if you are a teacher. There can be joy in not knowing things because of the interest and sometimes excitement when you learn something new.

Whatever the reason, that teacher lost a golden learning opportunity and Zoe got a lesson in not asking questions. And a bit of curiosity was squeezed out of the classroom as it is on similar occasions in classrooms across the world every day.

Why was Zoe more willing to stick her hand up and ask an extraordinarily interesting question? Was it because her curiosity was being kept alive at home? Or was she more resilient than most? If your answers don't get answered, most are more likely to stop asking them.

Sustaining curiosity

If curiosity is being kept alive in Zoe and children and teenagers like her because they have been born into homes that like questions and answers then that is a very good thing. But not all children are getting their questions answered out of school. Not all children are growing their curiosity and developing their learning skills – and that is a problem if their curiosity is also discouraged at school.

Those four children mentioned earlier, whose monitored conversations between the age of 14 months and five years revealed just how many questions young children ask, were already showing individual differences in curiosity by the age of three.

At one point in the study one of the children, Abe, asked 69.6 questions an hour – more than one a minute. But another little boy, Adam, was asking an average of 198 questions per hour – nearly three times the number Abe was asking. Was Adam having to ask more questions to get the answers he needed to meet his curiosity or was Abe asking fewer because he was already adapting to the lack of answers?

Susan Engel believes that until relatively recently teachers and academics haven't sufficiently appreciated how topics linger in the minds of children over days, weeks or even months – how sustained their questioning can be on a topic that engages them.

Diary studies, in which a teacher or researcher can keep a note of the questions that are being asked, are now used to research this and are revealing that these kinds of sustained questions are helping children develop their potential by reworking their ideas – or given half a chance they are reworking their ideas. Unfortunately, many of them are not given that half a chance because their questions go unanswered by parents or teachers.

Children will respond well to their questions being listened to.

What could be seen as fussing with questions is actually grappling with ideas and using questions to mould their new thinking, as the stonemasons of ancient Egypt would have chipped away and moulded those blocks of stone so they fitted together to make exceptional structures.

The way Engel sees it is this: ‘Many of the best solutions in education are incredibly simple. The hard parts are, one, realising something is important – a shift in how you think about children, or what goal you have for the classroom. And, two, doing it. In this case if the goal is to help children become better thinkers, the solution is to give them more, and more interesting, opportunities to think about things they want to think about.

‘Listen to what children are asking and give them time to pursue their thoughts.’

Thinking out loud

There are schools where this is happening. Engel says that in every school she visits in America and different parts of the world she generally finds a teacher who is able to answer children's questions, keep curiosity buzzing but also deliver the curriculum. Generally, though, this is individual action not systematic.

Which was the case initially at Ilminster Avenue nursery school in Bristol which took the radical step last September of making permanent the removal of most of its toys for two year-olds and replacing them with a diverse range of cardboard boxes, tin cans, pots and pans, old phones, kettles, computers and plumbing supplies – anything with more possibilities for curiosity and creativity than a toy.

The children didn't seem to notice the toys were gone. They particularly liked the cardboard boxes which they climbed into and made dens and imaginary spaceships and castles. The old keys were very popular to play at locking things away or unlocking imaginary kingdoms. They enjoyed wandering around having conversations with non-working but real mobile phones or making slides for toys with guttering. They didn't ask for the toys back.

Some of the three and four-year-olds missed some of their toys when they trialled the idea across the nursery earlier last year so they have been brought back for them, but there are fewer than there were.

The idea came from the school's head, Matt Caldwell, and initially some of the parents and teachers were unconvinced. They became convinced when they saw children's creativity and conversation rise.

Caldwell says: ‘If I wasn't democratic, I would have got rid of all the toys because the children don't need them. What children love is to copy what adults are doing with objects. What people and objects do makes them curious about their world.

‘School kills curiosity. When do children get to ask questions about things that interest them? As soon as they are at primary school they have to shut up and learn.

‘It's not the fault of teachers. They have so many targets to meet. They worry about Ofsted and parents worry about whether the children are learning enough. It stifles time for curiosity and creativity. It's disempowering for children and that isn't good for their mental health. The way schools are set up are outdated, a relic of Victorian times.’

‘Children's curiosity is being squeezed out of the very place it should be nurtured, often by a culture of testing, learning objectives and exam results which have no room for curiosity if the source of that curiosity is not in the lesson plan.’

Questions are positively welcomed at the Channing School for Girls

Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University who has visited the nursery to observe the children playing with their new ‘toys’ says humans learn from novel situations and curiosity is important to that process.

‘Children should be prompted and encouraged to ask questions even though that can be challenging for the teacher,’ says Howard-Jones. ‘We do need to find some time for questions during the day. There is not enough time in schools for creativity and following up on curiosity at the moment.’

Engel also believes change is needed. She argues that if you ask any educator what they believe the longer-term purpose of education is, they will say it is to get children and young people thinking well. ‘So, start helping them to think. Start with things they are interested in,’ she says.

She urges teachers and parents to listen more closely to what children are saying and believes that if a teacher has a few minutes conversation with every child in the class on a regular basis, over time that will have a big impact on their learning.

‘You need to reframe the day to make time for this. If you can't do that, you could have a day every couple of weeks when you give 30 minutes over to conversation. Keep notes on what questions the kids are asking,’ she says.

‘The more interested a teacher is in what his or her children want to talk about, what interests them, what questions they ask, the more those activities will blossom. It's also incredibly valuable for teachers to try and take note of when, and how they respond when children are curious. Simply by observing themselves on this dimension, they will become more skilled at fostering curiosity.’

Engel says that the point is not to praise children for being clever in what they are thinking but to dive right in and engage with it – they should be encouraged to think out loud.

‘Almost all children are natural intellectuals. They start out their lives as babies trying to work out the answers to problems. We have to let that pattern develop,’ she says.

‘A good education system would allow it and take it as a starting point. A good school would not only allow children to be curious, but would build on that, helping children learn the skills of more powerful inquiry. It would see it as a strength and build on it.

‘But we aren't doing that. Often educational bureaucracies have shunted curiosity to the side. When school systems say there is no time for nurturing curiosity, it makes me wonder what we could say to a doctor who says he has no time to give a patient the medicine she needs because the doctor is too busy filling out medical forms.’

Useful resources

  • How to Succeed at School: Separating Fact from Fiction. What Every Parent Should Know by Wendy Berliner and Judith Judd. Published by Routledge.

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