Cultivating Curiosity

curious teenager looking at a flower through magnifying glass outside

Increasingly, curiosity is regarded as a vital skill students need to flourish in the 21st century - not only as they progress through school, but as a foundation for succeeding in their future professions. Great thinkers, like Einstein, reminded us that "the important thing is to not stop questioning," and also claimed that he had "no particular talents" but instead was "only passionately curious." More recently, Thomas Friedman coined the term Curiosity Quotient (CQ), and makes the claim that the combination of CQ and passion (PQ) are more valuable indicators of success than traditional IQ.

Why all this hype about curiosity? Because a curious mind is open to new possibilities, is more comfortable with "grey areas," is creative, and spends more time learning. These qualities are recognizable amongst successful people in the 21st century, and throughout history. As educators, we want to help all our students thrive, and curiosity plays a major role in people's interest in and ability to learn

So how can we help students stay curious? We can actively teach them to keep their minds open, ask questions, and listen. Listening is crucial. When approaching a new challenge, we first gather as much information as possible about the situation. That means observing and listening, to be able to ask questions. Only when there is a solid understanding can analysis and problem solving begin.

Keep an Open Mind

A natural part of human nature is to want to eliminate possibilities, because it's easier to focus on one thing than many things. Our brains look for ways to narrow focus, but that's not always ideal or even beneficial. If we enter into a situation with pre-conceptions and biases, it's going to be that much harder for us to change our minds, or see other perspectives as valid. Keeping an open mind then, is step zero.

Combat confirmation bias - Confirmation bias is the tendency to choose information that affirms our previously held beliefs and ideas. We can all fall prey to this bias - think of the last thing you Googled - did you read equal numbers of result sites for each side of the argument? Or did you start picking articles that sounded like they supported the belief you were developing or already held? Help students think around this by asking them to make a case in favor of something, hold a class discussion or debate, and then swap sides. You can even find a problem for which there are many perspectives and let students try out a few different perspectives. 

Learn to Listen

Listening is crucial to information gathering. There are different ways to listen, and not all of them are helpful when approaching challenges. For example, we can listen to respond, or we can listen to understand. If we listen to respond, we're spending half our cognitive energy thinking of our own response, caught up in our own thoughts, potentially missing information. If we listen to understand, we focus on what the speaker is saying, maybe repeating or paraphrasing sections back. We're not likely to interrupt, because it's like listening to a story to understand the plot. Listening to understand leaves our minds open to new information, new learning.

Listen for the plot - Luckily, listening to stories is easy. Our brains love a good story. Comprehension is key here, so strengthen students' listening skills by encouraging them to listen to understand and give them many ways to show their comprehension. Split students into groups, assign each a section of a story to listen to independently and then bring them back together to discuss what just happened in the story. Evaluation doesn't have to be formal - it can be a conversation that helps each student see others' perspectives. Listen to sections of audio as a group and dissect the narrative and the narration. What clues are provided from the text, and what clues are added in by the narrator? 

Read more:  Research validates the importance of listening to stories

Ask Questions

George Washington MemeOnce initial information has been gathered, we can start to think of questions to clarify and flesh out the picture we've sketched. Now we have a general map, we can fill in gaps and make sure what we have is accurate. This is another good comprehension check. Sometimes we think something was part of a story, only to go back and find nothing of the sort when we re-read or re-listen. Especially in an age when it's easy to believe everything on the internet, fact checking is a valuable skill. 

Get ideas together - At this point, an actual drawing, mind map, or other visual organizer can be helpful for students to gather their thoughts. Try a group Google Drawing or even a word bank on Google Sheets for collecting impressions and ideas. Ask students to paraphrase plot lines, make predictions about what might happen next, and give evidence for their predictions.

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Photo credit: Paje Victoria

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