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Tapping into Curiosity

I’ve recently become curious about curiosity. Curiosity is one of our Radically Reimagined Relationships relational zones, and we often talk about the importance of being curious in our interactions with our students and colleagues. What might I learn if I tune into this student without preconceived ideas and simply listen? What questions can I ask to get a better sense of who they are and what they need? What makes this student (or colleague) light up? Questions that arise from genuine curiosity can be powerful relationship-building tools.


Beyond relationship-building, we’ve been looking at what the research says about different types of curiosity and their impact on other elements of learning. Research in the field provides some intriguing ideas:


  • Different types of curiosity light up different parts of the brain. One type of curiosity is perceptual curiosity. This is the type of curiosity that occurs when we encounter something that is ambiguous or surprising or that doesn’t match our expectations. MRI studies show that this type of uncomfortable curiosity lights up the same areas of the brain that light up with conflict, hunger or thirst. Epistemic curiosity, on the other hand, is associated with the love of learning, and it lights up the reward centers of the brain. Both types of curiosity can drive learning, but they feel different!

  • When you know nothing about a topic, you are unlikely to be curious about it. Too large a knowledge gap can be demotivating, even anxiety-provoking. On the other hand, if you know a lot about a topic, your curiosity is also likely to be low because the knowledge gap is too small; you already think you’re an expert. Curiosity, it seems, functions on an inverted u-shaped curve where curiosity is maximized when you know enough but not too much. That’s why knowing what students know about a topic before you begin is critical. Is this a review? If so, you need to spark their curiosity with something they don’t know yet. Is this the first time they’ve ever encountered the topic? If so, time spent building a knowledge base is important.

  • Curiosity may be a key to concentration. Professor and researcher, Dr. Jed Brewer sums it up like this: “There are two ways we can pay attention. We can force ourselves to concentrate or we can be interested.” Forcing ourselves — drawing on brute force willpower — is always harder and is often impossible to sustain. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, best known for his study of flow states, puts another spin on this idea, suggesting that, “There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them.” How, then, can we help students develop skills that help them learn to harness their attention? One possibility might be helping them learn some simple mindfulness practices — which have been shown to be very effective in helping people build their attention muscles (while also helping to calm the nervous system - a win win!).

  • When someone is initially curious to learn something, they are more likely to remember it. That makes a lot of sense. But here’s where it really gets good. Curiosity researcher Matthias Gruber has shown that the effect doesn’t end with learning that initial thing. Instead, he says, “Curiosity is a vortex that draws in what you are motivated to learn and interested to learn, but it also draws in a lot of other things around it.” In other words, he says, curiosity opens up pathways in our brains that make us more ready to learn anything!


In an effort to spur and find enjoyment in simply being curious, I have inflicted my love of podcasts on my students, introducing them a few months ago to the Everything Everywhere

podcast. Exhorting listeners to “learn something new every day,” the show describes itself as “a daily podcast for Intellectually Curious People.” There are thousands of episodes available, each diving into a random topic and lasting from about twelve to fifteen minutes. I asked my students to browse the catalog of previous episodes and send me the name of one that caught their interest, and we now begin each class listening to one of the selected episodes. There are no grades or quizzes, just the enjoyment of listening to something that made at least one of us really curious.


So far we have learned about scurvy, Babe Ruth, six-star generals, the domestication of the horse, the Salem witch trials, and the First and Second Reichs, to name a few. Certain episodes have led to conversations in class weeks later, and several students have told me it’s their favorite part of the period. We’ve gone through a few cycles now, and it has been illuminating to learn what captures each student. It’s given us more to talk about. In this way, exploring curiosity has been great for strengthening relationships as well as for building academic curiosity. It’s not always easy to find a spare fifteen minutes, but when I reflect on Gruber’s “vortex” and the ensuing conversations, it feels like time well spent on all accounts.

What activities do you use in the classroom that help to spark curiosity? Please share them with us!

Image credit: Dall-E 2024


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