With so many students learning from home right now, and normal routines out of the window, it’s more important than ever to encourage students to become autonomous learners who are interested in learning for the sake of learning. So, how can you nurture students’ enquiring minds during a global pandemic?
“Curiosity is more important than knowledge.” It’s a bold claim, but Einstein had a lot to say about curiosity as a driver of his success. One of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers, he described himself as having “no special talent.” Instead, he said he was just passionately curious.
Like all of us, learners experience curiosity in different ways. One type of curiosity – perceptual curiosity – is triggered when we see something unexpected and need an explanation for it, just like an itch that needs scratching.
Then there’s epistemic curiosity, which ignites our desire to learn new things purely for pleasure and intellectual stimulation. Also known as intellectual curiosity, it’s this drive for learning that makes a big difference to learners’ academic outcomes, professional success down the road – and even their happiness levels.
How to promote curiosity in your students
The good news for teachers who work with younger learners of course, is that children are naturally curious. Young children are full of questions and curiosity. But rates of questioning drop away as children progress through school, so how can you continue to nurture your students’ enquiring minds when they are no longer in your classroom? Here are some ideas:
1. Encourage questions and introduce new ways to capture them
Prompting questions from your students when they’re learning at a distance can be as simple as tweaking your language when you first introduce a topic or give instructions. Don’t ask if your students have any questions – instead, try asking what questions they have.
Making the assumption that they have questions, and creating space and time to address those questions, will encourage your students to share their queries with you. A KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart could be a good tool to use here. Once you’ve introduced the subject and they’ve worked through the ‘lesson’, share the chart with your students and ask them to complete it and return it to you. Encourage them to think of what they know already, and – crucially – what they want to know.
2. Model curiosity yourself and be a co-learner
Lead by example and show your students that you are interested in and excited about learning something new. Shifting your mindset can make a big difference. Instead of thinking about what you are teaching, frame your lessons in terms of how your students are now learning. Rather than passively receiving your expert knowledge in a classroom situation, encourage your students to learn how to find things out for themselves. If you model curiosity, they will be more motivated to seek out information on whatever topic you are working on.
One small way to do this? Start off your lesson or worksheet by telling your students that you don’t know much about the topic – but that you’re excited to learn together with them.
3. Match skill development with interesting topics
Think hard about the focus of your lesson. What is the crucial takeaway that your students need to learn and how can you ensure they do this from a distance? If they are practising a skill, then allow them to practise that skill in their own way. For example, if primary-age children are learning how to measure things in maths using centimetres, encourage them measure their favourite toys at home and take and annotate pictures showing their length.
If you are teaching older students valuable research skills, let them research and present on a topic of their choice. This doesn’t have to be a live presentation, a slide deck showing their research that they can email to you can be just as valuable.
4. Teach from a variety of perspectives
Pique students’ curiosity by showing them that different perspectives exist on the same subject. This will encourage them to think about and develop their own perspective on things. The current crisis is a great example of how different individuals’ perspectives can be: how do your students view the pandemic and home learning compared to their siblings, or their parents, or a grandparent or family friend isolating alone?
If you are a history teacher, promote marginalised voices and texts to show your students an alternative to the narrative in their history books. If you’re reading Jane Eyre with your students, share some excerpts of Wide Sargasso Sea. If you’re studying media, share with them two opinion pieces on the same subject. Encouraging your learners to contrast and analyse differing perspectives will help develop their critical thinking skills.
5. Give students choice and independence
Students with autonomy will be more engaged in the learning process whether that takes place in the classroom or as part of your distance learning programme. Of course, it is still important to have teacher supervision, but rather than playing the role of the expert who is telling your learners what to do, try to see yourself as the head researcher. You don’t want to hand them the information on a plate, but you can pique their curiosity to learn more, and then guide them to research on their own.
Show them how to research something thoroughly, by recommending certain sources, encouraging them to think critically, and sharing your own research with enthusiasm and excitement. Learning at home is an opportunity for them to really make the most of this autonomy.
The link between curiosity and success
A neuroscience study from the University of California shows there are concrete physical connections between curiosity and memory. In the results from the study, students remembered more of what they learned when their curiosity was piqued, suggesting that stimulating students’ curiosity could be a powerful motivation for learning.
And once students have joined the world of work, curiosity is linked to better employment prospects. Curious learners are the best-suited to challenging, creative work – which is also the type of work least likely to be automated. Ian Leslie, author of Curious, points out that “twenty-first-century economies are rewarding those with an unquenchable desire to learn, question and solve – and punishing those who don’t. Today, it’s not just what you know that counts – it’s how much you want to know.”
Not only is curiosity linked to better memory and job prospects – it also makes people happier. People who are curious report increased levels of satisfaction and mental well-being. Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor and author of another book Curious? says, “If you take the fundamental things that people tend to want out of life — strong social relationships and happiness and accomplishing things — all of these are highly linked to curiosity.”
All in all, if you can inspire curiosity in your students – whether back in the classroom or during this global pandemic as they learn from home, you’ll be helping them far beyond school, into their careers and adult lives.