After reading Ian Leslie’s Curious (kindly recommended to me by @drdavidajames), I had a burning question:
Can we teach our students to be more curious?
It seems baffling to me that our current pupils have the widest access to knowledge that has ever existed at their fingertips – quite literally! – and yet some of my pupils still do not have the desire to extend their knowledge beyond what they conceived as ‘the minimum requirement for the course’. At my most recent parent/teacher conference with my U6th (Year 13s), I even raised this with parents who agreed. So why do our students not desire to know more?
Curiosity is broadly defined as a strong desire to further knowledge about something. Interestingly, and as we have seen in classic pieces of literature such as Shelley’s Frankenstein, it is inherently part of our human behaviour. Leslie also alludes to this in his book by looking at aspects child psychology, whereby he comments that:
‘children ask a total of 40,000 ‘explanatory’ questions… ‘It shows that questioning is an incredibly important engine for cognitive development.’
However, it does seem that somewhere along the way our curiosity plateaus. According to google, this is a fact of the modern world. The current statistics for the use of the word has plummeted since the mid 19th century –
…the correlation of this with the ‘great progress of 19th century science’ is also something that Leslie and others have delved into further. I will not be exploring curiosity’s correlation with technology in this blog but if you desire to know more you can further read here, here and here. I simply want to explore if there is anything we can do about it as educators. To which I think: yes. Or, at very least, we can assist in steering our students closer to it.
The Value of Our Knowledge:
Embedding curiosity as professionals is not necessarily about being simply ‘inspiring.’ It is about developing an intellectual eagerness within our pupils. Therefore, our own desire to know all and more about our subjects is the first vital step for us. It has been explored on numerous occasions that knowledge gives our students access to more complex levels of thinking. In this way, providing them with this enables them to be curious; it opens a door to curious thinking. As Chrisman, in his article Arousing Curiosity, so eloquently puts: knowledge is like a snowball.
It is this alongside another vital condition which we must pass on: the importance of knowing (Dillon). However, this importance must be instilled as ‘internal’ and ‘intellectual’ not simply of ‘examination importance.’ The truth is, as educators, we understand the inherent value of ‘knowing’ and the intellectual fulfilment that one can gain by having knowledge – and having the desire to acquire it. This is an intrinsically motivated trait that we have somehow obtained, but it is one our students need to learn.
If we consistently teach ‘the importance of knowing for examination purposes,’ we may only ever drive extrinsically valued curiosity; it will not link or train our students in its intrinsic worth.
Therefore, teachers should:
- Know, and desire to know more.
- Assist our students in seeing the value of (1) beyond the exam.
But, of course, that (2) is not simple. And for those of us working in more challenging sectors of education with high-pressured results goals, (2) becomes laughably utopian.
So what can we do?
- Ask Good Questions
I actually find the wording of the A-Level and GCSE questions can limit curiosity. Despite being marked on an evaluative answer, the questions do not lend themselves to encouraging this approach – at least in English. For example, the A Level question is something like:
Explore the presentation of power in Hamlet.
Whilst this question is adequate enough for me, it certainly does not evoke curiosity, nor does it promote any evaluation. Before giving this curriculum question to my students, I have decided to ask good questions that will still guide them to answer this. I will reword it to the following:
Who is the most powerful character in Hamlet and why?
What is the most powerful scene in the play and why?
What is the most powerful line in the play?
What theme is most powerful in driving the revenge tragedy?
What power does Religion have over Hamlet?
These questions help make our students more active in their intellectual approach, whereas the initial question can encourage a passive exploration. Even still, I might pick a quotation about a character and force students to discuss it; again, promoting their ability to provide a discerning argument.
‘Claudius is the most powerful character in Hamlet. Even his eventual death is by choice’. Discuss.
Or simply (as an amazing colleague of mine gave her class).
What the hell is Hamlet’s problem?
2. Teach our Students the Value of Asking Good Questions
Leslie almost makes a key point about curiosity. He asserts:
‘According to Loewenstein, curiosity is a response to an information gap. We feel curious when there is a gap between what we know and what we want to know. … Information gaps come in the form of questions: What’s in the box? Why is that man crying?’
Or in the context of our classroom, having our students want to know: Why does Shakespeare choose to ‘Enter Gertrude’ here? Why do we still study this? What makes it timeless? A genuine (and frustrated) desire to discover more.
Moreover, Leslie also brings up a good point: there is social value in asking a good question. We can be at lectures or talks and observe another person asking an incredible question at the end. We actually become jealous or envious that they were able to ask that question as it provides us with the information from a gap we desired to be filled.
Therefore, it makes sense to get our students asking questions that they can immediately explore. Some strategies could include:
- Having students write down a question after a lesson and rank them on their intellectual/controversial quality. Choose the best one. It could become a homework or a revision task for the next lesson. It is important that this question focuses on the information and knowledge learned rather than discovery learning. It should be a task to deepen knowledge.
- For example: 1) What was the best line in this act and why? 2) The stage directions add no value to this scene. Discuss
- Getting students to write quizzes. ‘Catching students out’ is something that other students like to do when it comes to quizzes. This also adds the social desire to know. If a student gets a question wrong, they are aware there is information that their peers know. It assists in closing the information gaps in your classroom.
- Having students consistently ask: Why would someone disagree with me on this? To me, this latter question is the one sometimes lacking in our students. They are so fixated on finding ‘the right answer,’ they forget that there is always a debate that can be accessed. Have them explore the breadth of arguments available. This is valuable in building their ability to actively and consistently evaluate.
- Let Them Play (ask even Better Questions)
In early childhood psychology, there is always a direct correlation between ‘playing’ and ‘being curious.’ At the earliest stages, this manifests itself in seeing unknown item or object and attempting to discover its purpose or use.
Educators did pick up on this a while ago, but transferred it into secondary education as: using play dough to make characters, or creating facebook profiles for literary characters. This was certainly a way to engage students and demonstrate that they had (some) knowledge, but it certainly would not spark curiosity for there is nothing they can actively seek or gain by completing this task. Moreover, it is a perfect example of when curiosity is not sparked because ‘inspiring’ is not coupled with ‘intellectual eagerness.’
So when I say Let Them Play, it is with knowledge. It means: ask more abstract, contemporary, and provocative questions that propel the student entirely out of the classroom context – yet require knowledge from the classroom to achieve. As we know, ‘goal setting’ develops intrinsic motivation so perhaps it is important that we move our students’ goal posts slightly away from the curriculum every now and then.
Such questions might include:
- Using your understanding of astrophysics, what are the inaccuracies of this Star Trek scene?
- In what ways could one argue that Wham’s Last Christmas is written about Hamlet?
- Was Huxley weird? (Use your understanding of Brave New World, and Huxley’s essays).
- Do Eddie Vedder’s lyrics on his soundtrack to Into the Wild effectively highlight passages of Krakauer’s text?
- Which Shakespearean character is closest to Donald Trump? (An ice-breaker used for Oxbridge interviews)
- Of all the texts we have studied, what is the most overrated and why?
- What is the most underrated myth?
- Does power corrupt?
- What role did chemists play in the war? Are they heroes or villains?
- Where is the line between illegal and legal drugs?
I decided to also start a document where teachers can compile their favourite tasks in this area. These tasks may also work well as homework and/or to stretch and challenge. Please add any to the document below:
In summary, it does seem entirely possible that we can, at least, strengthen our pupils’ access to being curious. Teachers require two main attributes: 1) to have knowledge, and want to know more, and 2) to instil the importance of knowledge into pupils. But there are also things that we can be doing in the classroom. We need to consistently ensure that we are altering or changing the way we ask questions so that we can promote an intrinsic desire for knowledge, and encourage pupils to develop a discerning voice.