Curiosity: the knowledge gap

Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.

Samuel Johnson

We’re all, to some extent, naturally curious – we long to unpick out that which is mysterious, troublesome and uncertain. That’s not to say we’re all equally curious about everything. We tend to be particularly incurious about what is settled, quotidian and neatly tied off. The novelist, Anatole France thought that, “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” I think this is broadly true. A teacher unable to awaken the curiosity of his students is a poor thing indeed. We all strive to make the content we teach as remarkable and intriguing as may be.

Sometimes we fail. We buckle under the pressure to teach to a test of satisfy a ticklist and end up with rooms full of apathy. But we strive.

One neat little trick for “awakening the natural curiosity of young minds” is the knowledge gap. I recently read The Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen. When discussing Saturn’s rings they begin by asking, “Have you ever wondered what the rings of Saturn are made of?” I had wondered! And I wanted to know! By the end of the chapter it turned out that they’re made of dust. Ice covered dust.

By the end of the chapter it turned out that they’re made of dust. Ice covered dust. My knowledge of Saturn’s rings had been woefully inadequate. If they’d begun by baldly proclaiming this fact I may well not have absorbed it. But by pointing what I didn’t know, my ccuriosity was piqued. This kind of teaching is akin to digging a pit, filling it with the stuff we want children to learn, covering it with leaves and then beckoning them to follow us. Before they know it, and despite themselves, they want to satisfy their awakened curiosity.

But can you teach curiosity? No, of course you bloody can’t. They already are. Teaching children to be curious is like teaching cats to grow whiskers: utterly redundant. Despite the efforts of those determined to focus education on developing various ephemeral and innate qualities, curiosity is a tool at our disposal rather than suitable content to be studied. Instead let’s offer our students the richest diet on offer: knowledge of the world in all its chaotic glory.

But if you’re now curious about curiosity itself I can recommend Ian Leslie‘s book on the subject: Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It.

48 Responses to Curiosity: the knowledge gap

  1. Why should it be not possible to teach people how to be curious? ‘Being curious’ is only one of many states of mind, which can be introduced to people of any age in any time. If anything it’s cultural. In some cultures, curiosity is discouraged because it is seen as disrespectful of elders who possess knowledge. When I look at the model answers to the KS1 SAT on ‘Where go the Boats?’ by Robert Louis Stevenson and ask the question – do these answers suggest a teaching process that encourages curiosity or discourages it, I can say without doubt that it doesn’t encourage curiosity about poetry.

    Indeed, you or I could look at certain processes that go on in schools and put a ‘curiosity-encouraging’ or ‘curiosity-discouraging’ score over it. Indeed, when I was at grammar school in the 1950s, I was told quite specifically on several occasions, ‘don’t question it, just learn it’. – in particular in relation to Geography, even as a Biology teacher at the time said precisely the opposite, ‘question everything’.

    Or, consider a Sunday morning at home. On offer to my 10 year old is watching re-runs of football games we’ve both already watched, or going mudlarking on the Thames, which we’ve never done before. We decided to go mudlarking. We both went through a process of asking and listening, collecting and rejecting and so on.

    Did the mudlarking day support the idea that there is a world that can be observed, inspected, asked questions of…some of which we may find out, some of which we may not…and many other tangential thoughts that may take weeks, months or years to emerge…?

    • David Didau says:

      In which cultures are children incurious? I speculate, but I doubt very much that this is true: they might be scared to give voice to their curiosity but I’m pretty sure they feel it.

      Of course you can encourage curiosity – and certainly we should value it. You may very well be right about KS1 SATs papers, and you’re definitely correct about mudlarking, but you can no more stop children being curious than you can stop them breathing (Well, obvious that’s not strictly true ;)). All we can do is give them as many things as possible to be curious about. I said as much in my penultimate sentence.

      Your misguided teachers my have wanted to prevent you being curious but you appear to retained enough bafflement about their actions to still be questioning them. They failed.

      • Yes – curiosity is a natural mental disposition. We can’t teach it. We can however engineer circumstances to make them aware of that cognitive gap – as QI does with every question.

        However… we can perhaps teach children – through the giving of experience – that curiosity can be activtated by just about anything if looked at from the right perspective. Perhaps, we could educate them into a mental habit of “not instantly dismissing things which we assume will be boring” if you like.

        …and of course, the more knowledge they acquire, the more potential there is in every situation to find just the right perspectives to create the right-sized gaps to stimulate curiosity.

  2. They failed because I had two parents (who were teachers) who put in great efforts at encouraging me to be curious almost every day!

    • LeahKStewart says:

      Interesting conversation. My parents trusted my teachers and my teachers must have trusted the system, so I lost my curiosity because of schooling… because of the need I felt to ‘get these grades’ and ‘do these good things’ for access to uni and a “bright future”. Took me a few years after schooling to get my own mind back. I’m helping others do the same now.

      • Was that simply about curiosity though Leah – or a broader ingrained belief that ‘this is what education is all about’…? (Sorry – that was meant to be a philosophical question rather than a personal one!)

        • LeahKStewart says:

          No worries Chris, love the question… I’ll probably be thinking about that for a while. Hmm; Yes, broad, yes, probably ingrained. When a person can finish schooling as a model student, by the systems standards, and have completely failed by their own, this can spark a deep curiosity around what our education system is about.

      • David Didau says:

        You lost your curiosity? About school, or everything? I can’t imagine what it might be like not to wonder or suppose and anything. I don’t want to deny your experience but it sounds like a bit of an exaggeration

        • LeahKStewart says:

          OK. Hear what you are saying. What if there are two levels of curiosity? I did well at school because I have high levels of what we could call ‘polite curiosity’ i.e. if someone is here to teach me then I’ll give them a chance, I’ll pay attention and I’ll do the work they set. So in school I was ‘polite curious’ enough to stick at it when others didn’t. This level of curiosity never went away. But, there is a deeper curiosity that is at best ignored and at worst crushed by our schooling system. This curiosity is fueled by knowledge discovered by the curious person, not satisfied by it. I believe everyone has this ‘unquenchable curiosity’ inside them for a topic or personal field of interest… Where is the time in school to explore this? I never even saw my teachers bursting with this kind of curiosity. That made me sad. And, over time, my practice of this kind of curiosity diminished because it’s implicitly taught in our schooling system that ‘unquenchable curiosity’ is a distraction from the real work. I think we’ve got it wrong.

    • David Didau says:

      Michael, do you think that without your parents’ efforts you would have felt no curiosity about the world? did you require another’s input to feel it?

  3. TheOtherDrX says:

    Are all children equally curious? No, or at least I very much doubt it. Does curiosity predict future acheivement? I’d predict that it does and seem to remember reading some convincing evidence a while back. Not just children though. When my students ask me whether post-graduate academic research is for them, I first ask them if they are nauturally curious and inquisitive. If they are not, I tell them to consider other options.

    • David Didau says:

      Are all children equally curious? Of course not: are all children equally anything? But how on earth would you design a metric for measuring curiosity? And why would you bother? I’d be interested see the study you mention – I hazard a guess that it’ll use a weak proxy and come up with some correlational guff.

      • TheOtherDrX says:

        I agree, there will most likely be a vast range in curiosity. The reason I said “I very much doubt it” is partly to account for the inability to spot a highly curious student from a non-curious student, as you say, there is no metric for measuring curiosity (actually there is (the CEI scale), but its not overly complex and I really don’t know how reliable it is, probably on the same scale as VAK. See below). When there is a suitably reliable one, I’ll be more specific. You would think it is easy to spot a highly curious student, but concientiousness and intelligence muddy the water somewhat. One of the papers I was thinking of was:

        “The Hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity is the third pillar of acdemic performance” by Sopphie van Strumm. http://pps.sagepub.com/content/6/6/574.full.pdf+html
        Yes, it is a meta-analysis of potentially cross-correlated guff.

        However the other paper was somewhat more interesting.

        “Whether highly curious students thrive academically depends
        on perceptions about the school learning environment: A study
        of Hong Kong adolescents”
        http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11031-007-9074-9#page-1
        or maybe this link is open access: http://toddkashdan.com/articles/MOEM_HongKong_curiosity_achieve.pdf

        Curiosity on the CEI (curiosity and Exploratory inventory, 7 simple Q scale, see http://fetzer.org/sites/default/files/images/stories/pdf/selfmeasures/Self_Measures_for_Personal_Growth_and_Positive_Emotions_CURIOSITY_AND_EXPLORATION.pdf) correlated with academic acheivement (School grades, but not specifically Maths/English grades). Happiness scale and self-esteem scale were also correlated with curiosity. Not surprising really. However the lines that really got me was:

        “Results yielded Trait Curiosity x Perceived School Quality interactions in predicting HKCEE scores and school grades. Adolescents with greater trait curiosity in more challenging schools had the greatest academic success; adolescents with greater trait curiosity in less challenging schools had the least academic success.”

        and in the discussion:

        “Highly curious students reported greater HKCEE scores when situated in highly challenging schools and the lowest scores (of all students) in non-challenging schools.”

        So, as an educator, maybe curiosity within students is not all that easy to spot or exploit. In fact, it might be a hinderence given the wrong environment. Maybe Von Strumm’s article should have a caveat in the title…

        So maybe we should be focussing on ‘making the incurious curious’

        • David Didau says:

          Thanks for links above – they soundly condemn the lunacy of measuring something as ineffable as curiosity. My point is, there’s no such thing as ‘the incurious’, there’s just people who aren’t interested in what we’re interested in.

  4. Not sure that anything that has very much to do with our interactions (rather than primal needs) is ‘natural’, is it? If it were, we would be able to find a ‘curiosity gene’…and even if we could locate some entity that is responsible for brain activity when faced with the unknown (or some such) don’t we think it can be either encouraged or discouraged? And degrees in between?

    • I think it would depend on what we are defining as curiosity. Certainly infants seem instinctively programmed to attend to novelty and to things which create a cognitive disjoin. So I suppose in as much as we think of curiosity as trying to close cognitive gaps, then, yes, it seems as natural as attempts to communicate.

      However, I suppose if we defined it as simply ‘wanting to know more’ then it could be up for debate. Is there ever a situation though when we couldn’t experience a ‘cognitive gap’ – even though we might think we know enough about everything we need to know?

      • LeahKStewart says:

        Aren’t cognitive gaps everywhere? Like… everywhere with everything? What if it’s less about how curious a person is (say, on a scale compared to others) and more about where their curiosity lies and whether or not they feel empowered enough to explore in that direction? Sometimes curiosity for one topic becomes satisfied, and that’s OK. Right now I’m pretty happy with my knowledge of marine life, for example. There will always be something else. My brother’s curiosity for aviation will never be satisfied.

        • That’s very wise Leah. Clearly there is something to be said for the notion that these gaps only stimulate our curiosity when we become aware of them, and I know that it also matters just how big or small the gap is – two big and we’re not interested etc. However, it is quite obvious what you say that we all have certain areas which fascinate us more than others. Perhaps with every area we each have a certain ‘capacity for curiosity which can require more or less to make us satiated.

          Where do our ‘innate’ interest dispositions come from though? Psychoanalysts would probably point to early sexual experiences or something… 😀

          • LeahKStewart says:

            Ha, no idea! Feel free to post a research update on your blog at some point… so us folks not curious enough to look into that issue can all benefit 😀

    • David Didau says:

      I think behaviour genetics is a bit more complicated than that. But I’d argue that curiosity is an essential human quality – it’s what makes us different from other animals. And so, yes: it must be natural.

  5. kategladstone says:

    As a teacher, I increasingly encounter INcurious children: even in the pre-school years —-,kids who do NOT respon, emotionally or otherwise, to “Have you ever wondered what … ?” or any such stimulus.
    Ask them “Have you ever wondered how kittens purr?” or any such thing, and the answer [if any] will be one of two things:
    /1/ “No”: the sort of “No” whose dull delivery makes clear that the speaker does not even imagine, or even wish to be able to imagine, wanting to know anything that s/he doesn’t know or believe already.
    or /2/ worse, a reply that’s a sheer guess EXPRESSED IN TERMS OF BORED CERTAINTY (example: “Oh, kittens purr because there’s a battery inside.”) — once the boredly certain guesser delivers his/her pronouncement, s/he REFUSES to be tempted to seek further.(“I SAID they purr because there’s a battery inside, so that’s why they do it!”)

    Suggestions, please?

    • David Didau says:

      Well, I can’t speak for all kids everywhere, but I struggle to believe that they’re incurious about everything. My suggestion would be to watch them and listen to them. What do they do? It’s almost impossible for children to do nothing in response to a stimulus.

      But yeah, I can imagine someone not caring about why kittens purr – but, where do the batteries go? What happens when they run out? Are kittens machines? What does it mean to be alive? Could we design a Turing Test for kittens?

    • LeahKStewart says:

      Hi Kate, I love your question so much! It’s so honest and real. This inspired me to put together a short audio response which I’ve posted on my blog for you and others who might like to listen to my take on this situation: http://leahkstewart.com/curiosity/ xx

  6. Curiouser & curiouser

    You can teach a child to run better, catch better, be curious better, and you can pull out the cat’s whiskers…

    But what about curiosity about things we don’t know about? Curious about areas where knowledge hasn’t ventured?

    • David Didau says:

      How would you teach a child to be more curious?

      You can provoke curiosity but how can you improve it? Wouldn’t that necessitate having to measure it? Am I more curious than you? Could you become more curious with curiosity booster lessons?

      • My son learnt some ‘formal’ or structured curiosity because I always wondered out loud. Eg I wonder what will happen if…? Wow! Why did that happen…? Etc he got the bug and we still have those type of conversations that can go on for ages they wander along various joyful paths and never really end.

      • I don’t think you can make people ‘more curious’.

        If curiosity is a desire to know then you can either stifle it, distract it, make it difficult, reject it, put insurmountable objects in its way… or you can encourage, allow it to lead its merry way or, indeed, you can bring temptation to bear.
        This would help or hinder the desire. Make it worse or better as a way of allowing fulfilment of the desire or not. You can hone the direction of it too…

        Not more… And through this into the unknown… They might ‘fail better’ but no don’t measure, why would you want to?

        If you are curious to get to know someone they could make it difficult for you to get to know them or encourage you…

        And of course they might not even know thyself…

    • Martin – regarding curiosity about areas where we have no knowledge…

      We do seem to have a common curiosity as to whether there is “more than this”. I don’t know whether that is a sense of existential restlessness intrinsic to having self-awareness. (“Yes, but what does it all MEAN?!” we hear ourselves scream from time to time) (maybe it’s just me doing the screaming).

      I also find myself pondering whether knowledge that “We can never know how much we don’t know (as a race)” ameliorates my curiosity, or makes it more piqued.

      … I also find myself pondering just how much NOT being able to know something changes my feeling of curiosity. Will the human race ever really colonise beyond our Solar System (a la Interstellar)? What did Jesus really say? What WOULD have happened if I’d made a decision not to…etc.? Unless I do indeed find myself on a cloud with an omnipotent grandstand view, I simply can never now. That definitely affects my curiosity in some way… but for good or for ill I don’t know.

      Perhaps telling children they’re not allowed to know is a great way to get their curiosity up…!

  7. David says:

    I’m a historyy teacher in a private high school in the US and find that the issue of curiosity is closely tied to research and individual exploration of an issue. We have a tremendous problem getting students to play “Sherlock Holmes” when pursuing a topic–most simply adopt the position of trying to get through the work as quickly as possible and don’t have that “love of the chase” that makes for a fun and engaging effort. Also, we have a big issue trying to get students to read for pleasure in order to expand their knowledge. My impression is that technology has gotten in the way of their curiosity–not just the internet, the “fear of missing out” encouraged by social media and texting–this, combined with TV, video games, netflix, etc., sucks their free ime away like sand through their fingers….

  8. […] Curiosity: the knowledge gap – David Didau: The Learning Spy. […]

  9. Is there a society anywhere where adults are as widely and persistently curious as children? If not, then that would suggest that it may be natural for curiosity to diminish, or at least to narrow its focus to the specific interests of the individual, as we mature, in the same way that the desire to play diminishes. It’s not difficult to think of reasons why it would be more important for young children to be intensely curious than for older children or adults.

    This is one of the problems with the widely-held belief that schooling “kills” curiosity: it may be that schooling merely coincides with a period when curiosity would gradually narrow or diminish anyway.

    Also, the apparent decline of curiosity coincides with the period at which children start to become interested in establishing their place in the social hierarchy, becoming aware of what is “cool” and what isn’t. Showing too much curiosity can give the impression of immaturity and lack of knowledge.

    • I think you’re completely right Chris – I think that the apparent reduction in curiosity which there seems to be, as children get older, mirrors the apparent reduction in creativity which we also lament. Due to the relatively unstructured cognitive set-up of young children, curiosity is rampant, and their creativity follows strikingly unexpected directions. Yes – as we learn more, there is more to become curious about, but our anticipation of what the answers might look like is largely less suspenseful (as we’re better able to anticipate), and the stakes possibly feel less high than they do for a vulnerable infant. So curiosity is less obvious and more specialised. (I’ve hammered into creativity in one of my recent posts, so I won’t here!)

  10. At the moment we are looking at positive behaviours for learning and one of those that has been identified is ‘Inquisitiveness’. Like to know more?

    Have a look at the 2 articles already published on our school Teaching and Learning site.

    1 – http://st-peters.bournemouth.sch.uk/tlplus/2015/04/13/what-did-you-learn-at-school-today-in-praise-of-inquisitive-parents/

    2 – http://st-peters.bournemouth.sch.uk/tlplus/2015/04/14/positive-behaviours-for-learning-inquisitive/

    Any feedback on the site to help us while we focus on this aspect of learning in student tutor sessions and in subject areas over the course of this half term is welcome.

    Only part we need to try and make sure of is that we start to reward students for being curious and following through with that curiosity. Now what carrot can we pull out of the hat to reward that one?

    • Hello John – I apologise if you were only really asking David about feedback, but if you’re interested, I’ve had a look at your pages and I’ve got a couple of thoughts? David will probably bar me soon for hijacking his posts!

      I was very impressed by the attempts to get learners to engage with and ponder the concept of curiosity which I think could be a very fruitful aspect to helping activate it more freely.

      I suppose my one real concern is triggered straight away by the uncomfortable jarring of the grammar in the phrase ‘Behaviours for learning: Inquisitive’. ‘Inquisitive’ is an adjective not a verb… which I know sounds irrelevantly picky, but I think it points to your root difficulty in wanting to ‘reward’ this area. Now, I know you break down what you talk about into three actual verbs: being curious, questioning & experimenting, but I think that ‘being curious’ is a state of mind, rather than a behaviour as such, and hence why you might be running into difficulties with trying to find ways for rewarding it. Inquisitiveness is indeed probably a characteristic feature of good learners, but so is confidence… Would you run with ‘Behaviour for Learning: Confident’ and try to motivate people to be confident by rewarding it?

      I guess my own thoughts down this line is that the mental state of curiosity is something which we as teachers can do 4 things with:
      1) We can discourage its expression by insisting that children just learn what they need to learn.
      2) We can collude with it by bending all teaching to what children are naturally curious about.
      3) We can capitalise on it by strategically trying to trigger it at key times to maximise learning in the directions we want.
      4) We can extol the virtues of being curious (as you do magnificently on your pages), whilst trying to give pupils tools they can use to activate their own curiosity when required throughout life.

      I’m just not sure it is something which we should seek to motivate through rewards, other than by reference to limited expressions of it, such as for actively asking questions – which you are already doing.

      For what it’s worth, I pursued some ideas on the page linked to below for how we might give children strategies for generating curiosity about an area they weren’t initially stimulated by. Please feel free to critique as you feel inclined!

      https://steppingbackalittle.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/beyond-the-cult-of-engagement-part-3-top-level-engagement/

      Best wishes – Chris

  11. […] 13th April – Curiosity: the knowledge gap […]

  12. […] have already learned about. If there are no readily available links present, we can look to create knowledge gaps and activate curiosity. We do not need to provide a less academic curriculum for ‘kids like […]

  13. […] to the limited life experiences of school children. But we can create relevance by opening up knowledge gaps and invited students to fill the deficits in their understanding of the world. We can also do our […]

  14. […] to the limited life experiences of school children. But we can create relevance by opening up knowledge gaps and invited students to fill the deficits in their understanding of the world. We can also do our […]

  15. […] to the limited life experiences of school children. But we can create relevance by opening up knowledge gaps and invited students to fill the deficits in their understanding of the world. We can also do our […]

  16. Rachel Gallagher says:

    All children are born with the potential to be curious but this can be developed or stifled by the responses of adults. When a child’s questions are met with annoyance and told to be quiet, then children cease to ask or make comment. Likewise if they are ridiculed and humiliated in response to interest or questions. But when questions are answered properly and when the child receives respect for their thinking and when questioning is modelled and encouraged…well, then children develop curiosity and the confidence to express it.

    • David Didau says:

      I think you’re talking about confidence, not curiosity.

      • Rachel Gallagher says:

        Well now to my mind curiosity and confidence are closely linked. Some time ago I had a 15 year old pupil who had waited until we were alone to ask me what a cabbage was like. In her house vegetables were baked beans or peas. She couldn’t ask this question in front of peers.

        When a toddler sees a worm the adult reaction might be “yuch don’t touch it’s dirty” or even “it will suck your blood” or else “let’s look at it closely and carefully, that is a worm”. Here is the start of your education gap – that which schools are tasked with closing.

        Teachers are frustrated when low achieving pupils don’t ask questions and don’t ask for help.
        1. Some prior knowledge is needed in order to frame a question.
        2. Confidence in that knowledge is required
        3. Confidence that the question won’t be met with ridicule

        I consider confidence and the expression and development of curiosity to be closely inter linked.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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