“...when we’re curious about something, uncovering the answers feels more like a reward than a chore.”

Curiosity usually starts with a question. Why? How? What if? Questions like these are important because they spark our interest and motivate us to look for answers. 

Curiosity not only prepares our brain for better learning, but makes the entire process more enjoyable. In fact, personality traits like curiosity seem to be as important as intelligence in determining how well students do in school.

This makes sense, of course, because when we’re curious about something, uncovering the answers feels more like a reward than a chore. 

It’s this same principle that makes certain types of headlines so irresistible. When we see an article with a headline like Are you making this common mistake? or How healthy are you really? our interest is sparked, and before we know it, we’re clicking the link to find out more. 

But the truly fascinating thing about curiosity is that once our interest has been piqued, it seems that we’re not only better able to learn and retain information related to the topic we’re curious about, but other unrelated information too. 

As teachers, if we want to equip students with the skills to become lifelong learners, harnessing the power of curiosity is an excellent place to start. Here’s a look at how curiosity can enhance learning and teaching. 


Curiosity’s role in teaching and learning

In order to better understand how curiosity affects memory, researchers from the University of California, Davis asked volunteers to rate their levels of curiosity for a series of trivia questions such as Who was president of the US when Uncle Sam first got a beard? or What does the term ‘dinosaur’ actually mean? 

They also carried out brain scans while the volunteers read the questions and subsequently discovered the answers. 

Unsurprisingly, they found that the volunteers were better able to remember the answers to the questions they had been curious about. So the more curious we are about something, the easier it will be to learn new information about it. 

The brain scans also showed increased activity in the regions of the brain related to reward and memory, as well as increased interactions between these regions. In a way, when curiosity is aroused, learning becomes a reward in itself. 

Even more interestingly, the researchers found that once the volunteers’ curiosity had been aroused by a question they found intriguing, they appeared to be better at remembering unrelated information too. 

This shows that curiosity can even enhance our ability to learn things we aren’t particularly interested in. For teachers, this means that finding a way to tap into students’ curiosity can make it easier to teach important, but less exciting, material. 

Another study by University of Michigan researchers found that children with higher levels of curiosity, which was defined as the ‘joy of discovery and desire for exploration’ and the ‘motivation to seek answers to what is unknown,’ performed better in school

Interestingly, this effect was even more noticeable in children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, promoting curiosity in school may also be useful in tackling the achievement gap. 


How to spark curiosity in your classroom

Learning itself is easy; it’s finding the motivation to learn that can sometimes be difficult. Of course, if every subject in school was related to a student’s personal interests or passions, curiosity would follow naturally. But since this is rarely the case, what can teachers do to spark curiosity on a daily basis? 

Helping students connect their learning to the world around them is one approach, as research by neuroscientist, psychologist and former teacher Dr Mary Helen Immordino-Yang shows that students are able to engage more deeply with material that connects to topics they care about. 

To do this, think about how students might use the information in their daily lives. Is there someone they know personally who might have been affected by a particular issue? Are there any newsworthy events you could discuss that tie in with what your students are learning? It could even be worth asking students if there is anything they are curious to know more about when covering a particular topic.  

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have also found that curiosity can be contagious, so simply showing enthusiasm for learning and modeling curious behavior ourselves could also be an effective way of promoting curiosity in the classroom. 

Finally, if we want students to take ownership of their learning and become self-directed learners, we must teach them how to think rather than what to think, and encouraging them to ask questions is a big part of this.