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How to Create Curiosity in Classrooms

by Sam E. Anzer

This man. 

This man. 

What is he running from? Or to? 

The desire to know what that man is doing is a specific type of curiosity called partiality. You understand only part of the story or image but want to learn more. Partiality is one of the 12 ways we label forms of curiosity, and creating curiosity is the best way to engage learners. 

Here’s the big question, though--are students less curious these days? 

There are a few things that have been shown to stifle curiosity. They are part of the very fabric of our education system and how we teach. These things are _____, ____ and ____. 

There’s that partiality again, but before I tell you about _____, _____, and ______, what do you think the current educational model does to stifle curiosity? 

Got your hypothesis in? 

Natural curiosity is stifled through homogenized testing, static curriculum, long periods of sitting, and lack of physical and mental autonomy. (Das, Dewhurst and Gray, 2011)  And, in a study of 120 employees...natural curiosity was associated with better job performance, as evaluated by their direct bosses (Gino, Harvard Business Review, 2018). Research has shown curiosity to be associated with higher levels of positive emotion, lower anxiety levels, more satisfaction with life, and greater psychological well-being.

Wondering how you can encourage curiosity in your students?  If you’re reading this, you already care about curiosity, and you realize that we perform better when we’re curious. Everyone does. Also, being curious is fun. What are some research-driven ways to create more curiosity in your classroom right now? Here are some examples: 

  1. If a learner doesn’t see the relevance in a task and they have no control over said task, they are extremely unlikely to be engaged or experience curiosity (Kearny and Perkins, 2014). So, if we can create learning experiences that are authentic to a career, that show the material’s relevance to the learner, its importance to their success, we can increase engagement and create more transparent connections between academics and a learner’s future. That way, you’ll never get “Uh, Mister--when are we gonna use this in real life?”  

  2. If we communicate to our learners that state mandated objectives are valuable but their random curious questions are not it can have a pruning effect on curiosity. To show the students in my classroom that their curiosity is valuable, during our lesson on Their Eyes were Watching God, when a student asked what Florida looked like in the 1930’s I stopped our reading, fell behind on my lesson and said, “Let’s google search some images!”   

Following through on learners’ natural curiosity with small, unplanned detours is a straightforward application suited to any teaching practice. And it often creates more curiosity too. Are you wondering what Florida looked like in the 1930’s? What they ate or wore back then? Who the governor was? Remember how we experienced partiality a moment ago? Well, evoking curiosity with a novel puzzle, situation, game, or any content with an effective hook to draw people in has shown to improve retention and engage learners (Rosegard and WIlson 2013)

Ideally, we create spaces and systems where curiosity can flourish naturally. But to do this, we have to change the systems that govern the way we learn and the way we teach. You can’t fake curiosity, and If we want curious students, we need curious teachers. “Teachers are reported as feeling that they have no instructional time to prioritize the “affective and creative” aspects of learning, no time to grant or create autonomous tasks for their students and felt pressured to complete the well-defined tasks within the allotted time frame, thereby excluding tasks that encourage or even follow up on classroom curiosity (Engel & Randall 2009).” 

Teachers have to feel curious for students to feel curious. That’s why when we facilitated Creating Curiosity with Fred Tjardes, an innovative school in Greeley, Colorado, we gave them the same secret that I’m about to share with you. 

Here’s the secret on how to be curious: You don’t need a secret to be curious! You are an expert in curiosity already within your own experience; consider this: Remember when you picked up a Rubix cube and wanted to try to twist the colors to match them up? Or experiment with the different settings of mall massage chairs to find out what they felt like? Or that show that made you curious to see the next episode? What did it do to achieve this feeling? What did you do with that feeling?  

Which of the following three forms of curiosity is wanting to know what happens next in your favorite TV show? 

Losing out - When others know something that we do not, we become curious, wanting to find out what it is. 

Slow reveal - When something is being revealed, we gradually discover more; we make predictions and wait to see if we are right. 

Promising benefit - Benefits are positive outcomes that result from actions. When someone talks about the good things we could have, we want to know more. Salespeople use this approach when they put benefits before features, suggesting that we get specific benefits without saying how. 

Before you check out this resource on the different types of curiosity I mentioned, or this 22-minute podcast where an astrophysicist explains why we experience curiosity-- I’d like to end by leaving you a little curious.  

How will you increase curiosity in schools?  

P.S. - If you want to know about “THIS MAN,” follow this link 

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