Curiosity is why cats have 9 lives
My husband has a fake thumb. He has two real thumbs too, but his fake thumb is special. It has a red LED light in the tip of the thumb that lights up when pressure is applied to it. When our nephews were between the ages of 5 and 8 he would baffle them with his fake thumb. He had a quick slide of hand that made it easy to apply his thumb and remove it quickly so they weren’t able to figure out the trick. He would pretend there were lightning bugs on their shirts, that he could spit red lights, and eat little red things as a snack. His and their imagination was endless with this little magic shop toy. They would rush over and grab his hand so quickly as to see if they could catch this little red light in action, but then they would just see his real thumb. I heard many times, “How does that work?” “How does your thumb do that?” They were in awe…they were curious…they were primed for learning.
Curiosity is a driver. It is a driver for asking questions, for solving problems. It is a strong desire to learn. It fuels our brain to find the answer to a problem we have been presented with. Your brain loves curiosity. So does your students’, audience members’, and/or coworkers’ brain. Curiosity is the spark and the learning process is the wick to the fire of knowledge gained. Research has identified that if you can spark curiosity in your students, you can actually engage them to be naturally motivated to learn. Curiosity, or another way to look at it, novelty, activates the same reward regions of the brain as do drugs and gambling. A big reason why some students retain information and others do not is because when the new material is being presented, dopamine is present. Dopamine can be considered the “save button” of the brain. When it is present, we remember the experience, when it’s absent we don’t. Neuroscientists have also found that the hippocampus is highly active when in a curious state. This is the region of the brain involved with creating memories. What a great combination for learning, making memories and feeling good about it. Shouldn’t that be our goal for our students and our topic?
How can we as educators be sure we are incorporating curiosity into our classrooms?
1. Create a question safe environment.
The one tell-tell sign that someone is curious, is if they are asking questions. When there are no questions, you should be worried. As clinicians and as educators we want our audience (patients or students) to feel like they are in an environment that welcomes curiosity and question asking. One thing I’ve noticed with some of my favorite professors over the years is that they created an environment where being wrong was exciting because that was the moment we were going to learn, not be ridiculed. The environment allowed for curiosity because it allowed us time with trial and error, time to come up short, receive feedback and try again. Recently this tweet came across my timeline:
As I pondered it, I realized the negative connotation of “I don’t know” has been fueled by our pride. By creating a question filled environment, we can leave our pride at the door and enter into a place of curiosity and wonder. A place where even the professor has something to learn.
2. Ask yourself key questions.
How do you go about developing a new course or updating a previously taught course? Since being trained as a clinician, I tended to look at each topic like a systematic evaluation. Every topic needed to be defined, understood, utilized in action and synthesized into real world application. The problem with this approach is it took out all curiosity. Daniel Willingham in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, stated, “…being told the answer quells curiosity before it can even get going.” Our course design sets the tone for curiosity, so it only makes sense to start the process with a question. Next time you are sitting down with a course, ask yourself this question, what are the key questions you want students to explore in this course? This question will allow you take a bird’s-eye view of your content and think about how to create the curiosity. Once you have your answers to that question, then make your learning objectives off of those ideas.
3. Ask your students key questions.
Key discussion questions planned throughout your lecture or workshop can work well to break up the mundane, decrease cognitive load, and spark curiosity. By asking a leading question and then splitting up into small groups or discussing as a large group, you can get the curiosity motors running. It works well to have several questions planned, but also be willing to go where the class is taking you. Discussion doesn’t always follow the trajectory you think it will and that is okay because it may lead into a path that furthers your point. Now there is also a caution with letting the audience responses guide your questioning…they sometimes go in the opposite way. That’s okay too, because there is learning to be done even in the wrong direction. Just guide them back onto the path with what, when and why questions. Sometimes getting your students to point out the false information actually solidifies the correct information better.
If all else fails, go buy yourself a fake thumb with a LED light in it. It is guaranteed to create curiosity and excitement…at least for a short time.
How do you create curiosity in your classroom? What has been your favorite curiosity sparking moment in the classroom (whether you were the student or the teacher)?