How Can We Make Students More Curious?: Some Thoughts from Daniel Willingham

Dani and I have long been fans of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham’s work on the science of  learning, since being introduced to his work in the School of Education at UNC. I recently  came across a great bit from one of his papers on a topic close to my heart, engaging students’ curiosity:

Can we make students more habitually curious? If curiosity is like other aspects of motivation it’s likely that some part of it is genetically inherited but not all (Gottschling et al. 2012). The home and school environments make a difference. So what can be done?

First, as is almost always true, modeling what we want students to learn is a good place to start. I remember when I first started teaching I was surprised that my end-of-semester student evaluations often mentioned my interest in cognition. That seemed odd. Wasn’t it my teaching that mattered, not how I felt about cognition? Looking back, I’m surprised that I was surprised. After all, if I don’t seem keenly interested, why should the students be? Likewise, if we want students to be habitually curious, they should see that attitude in us.

Second, we should bear in mind the distinction between long-term interest and short-term curiosity. Curiosity is not a serious commitment. It’s a pleasurable sampling, like a wine-tasting. For that reason, it can be frivolous. I would argue that indulging our curiosity is never a waste of time. That perspective implies we should honor curiosity in students wherever we find it, however trivial its object may appear to us.

Third, we should bear in mind that curiosity is prompted by a good question. We are curious because we detect a problem, an unanswered question, and we think that if we work on it, we’ll feel the pleasure that comes with solution. So, we might prompt more curiosity in students if we spend more time thinking about and developing questions. But not all questions are created equal. For the solution to seem rewarding requires that the student have some investment in the question in the first place. That’s why bald, out-of the- blue questions—“Why do you suppose snakes shed their skins?”— seldom work. The best books, documentaries, and speakers are able to sneak up on good questions, so that by the time the question is posed, the audience is panting to know the answer. A common technique is to use a narrative structure, which I’ve described in detail elsewhere.

Willingham, D. (2014). Making Students More CURIOUS. Knowledge Quest, 42(5), 32-35.

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Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, Quotes

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