What Happens from Infancy to Adolescence?
We have all seen that three-month-old infant as he holds his hand in front of his eyes, staring at it as if it is the only thing in the world. He opens and closes his fingers very slowly. He makes an “O” of surprise with his mouth as he wiggles his fingers back and forth. This infant has finally discovered his hand, even if he does not yet realize that it is a part of himself that he can control.
The simplest thing–his own moving hand–opens up a window of intense curiosity for this three-month-old. What happens between these moments of discovery and the growing of a child that seems to sap that curiosity away?
“I began the quest that led to [Mind in the Making] to reconcile two contrasting images. One is an image of infants who are unstoppable learners–eager to see, touch, understand, and master everything…Stanislas Dehaene of the College de France in Paris calls it a learning instinct–a survival skil, but also a source of deep pleasure and joy.
The other image is of children from across the country, in the sixth through the twelfth grades, whom I interviewed about learning for a study I was conducting….Far too many–from all kinds of families, schools, communities, and parts of the country–seemed deadened by the notion of learning.”
What exactly is this phenomenon that we are observing of children slowly losing their innate “learning instinct”? More importantly, once we understand what it is, how can we counteract it?
How Curiosity Works
According to research in the Neuron Journal, we learn that curiosity links to the reward system in our brain. When research participants showed curiosity about questions they were asked, fMRI scans displayed increased activity in the pleasure and reward systems. This is due to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Dopamine helps create more vivid memories. This can explain the increase in activity in the hippocampus, which the study revealed. This area of the brain is responsible for the creation of memories. Thus, an engaged and curious learner is more likely to remember what he is learning. Not only that, the study shows that even incidental material is recalled when it’s presented during a state of curiosity.
Curiosity does not only lead to pleasure and reward. It does not only help us to remember information. It is also the driving factor behind motivation.
“From the human perspective the relationship between curiosity and motivation creates a feedback; the more curious one becomes about something the more motivated one will be, and the more motivated one is the more one learns and the more curious one will become.”
We now know that curiosity can lead to pleasure and reward, as well as help us to retain information. It can be an intrinsic motivator for our students. These factors alone can transform a classroom.
So, what might be getting in the way of curiosity in the classroom?
Susan Engel, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Williams College, wrote an entire book (The Hungry Mind) about the development of curiosity throughout childhood. She furthers this research in the Educational Leadership Magazine article “The Case for Curiosity”. Here, she argues that teachers sometimes subconsciously discourage curiosity in their classrooms:
“Although it’s hard to discourage the investigations of a 2-year-old, it’s all too easy to discourage those of 7-, 11-, or 15-year-olds. In one classroom I observed, a 9th grader raised her hand to ask if there were any places in the world where no one made art. The teacher stopped her midsentence with, ‘Zoe, no questions now, please; it’s time for learning.'”
While this incident may not be typical, teachers are constantly being inundated with standards that need to be met. This might not leave time for a student to wander off in curiosity about something considered “a bit off subject”. Yet, we now know that when curiosity is peaked, the brain retains “incidental material” as well. Sometimes, for students, this “incidental material” may very well be the material we are trying to teach.
What else might stand in the way of curiosity?
It is well-known that the traditional lecture style of teaching is not conducive to cultivating a student’s natural curiosity. When learning is approached with a “this is what you need to learn attitude,” a student’s innate desire for meaning is zapped. The content becomes meaningless to them. They often approach the subject with a “why do I need to know this?” response.
So, what does this mean for how we teach?
Erik Shonstrom’s article on fostering curiosity takes a look at the question of how we, as educators, can encourage this trait in our students. He concludes that we must understand our role as teachers to better assist our students.
“Counterintuitively, our role as teachers is not to provide answers. Our role is to give time and free rein to inherent curiosity and questions, and let our students exist in the heightened state of hungering for knowledge.”
Furthermore, Shonstrom suggests that the only way to really accomplish this is to free our school systems from common curricula and standardized testing. This will allow the teachers to slow their pace and give students time to be inquisitive. While this should prove helpful if it is ever to occur, it is not the only thing that teachers can do.
The following suggestions can be implemented at any time without waiting for bureaucratic intervention.
1. Solve Real World Problems
Make the move toward student-centered collaborative learning. This learning usually incorporates a form of problem-based learning. This method emphasizes solving real world problems. By showing students how their learning connects to the real world, we send the message that the subject-matter is relevant. It is no longer about “what you need to learn.” Rather, it becomes about “why you should learn it.”
2. Journaling for Effective Questions
Make curiosity homework. Have students compile a journal of collected questions. Students will keep this journal (whether digital or physical) with them wherever they go. They can keep the journal in a creative way, either by drawing pictures, creating a collage, or writing questions. These topics can then be developed (in class or at home) for further exploration.
Ideally, this can lead to exercises in learning how to ask effective questions. Learning how to ask questions effectively improves student achievement in all subjects and, ultimately, in life.
3. Peer Teaching
Teachers can use the journaling for effective questions activity as a springboard for peer teaching. Peer (or reciprocal) teaching is all about having students teach each other. Pair students up to find answers to their journal questions. This activity helps to reinforce their own knowledge. As we know, active learning gets the brain geared up for curiosity mode.
School isn’t just about learning. It is about remembering what we learn. It’s about cultivating the natural curiosity that we are born with. School is about learning to love learning.