Curiosity in Learning: 5 Ways Schools Disrupt It, and How to Reverse the Trend

Curiosity is associated with higher levels of well-being, better problem-solving skills, and more significant academic achievement. So why doesn't the traditional education system care if kids are curious?

Emily Veno
April 20, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

Everyone I know who's independent-minded is deeply curious, and everyone I know who's conventional-minded isn't. Except, curiously, children. All small children are curious. Perhaps the reason is that even the conventional-minded have to be curious in the beginning, in order to learn what the conventions are. Whereas the independent-minded are the gluttons of curiosity, who keep eating even after they're full. -Paul Graham

Have you ever wondered why some people are enthusiastic lifelong learners, while others lose interest in learning as they grow older? What is the secret ingredient that keeps some students engaged in the learning process, while others feel bored and disinterested?

The answer is curiosity.

Curiosity is a superpower that enhances the learning experience. And some would argue, as Paul Graham does above, that curiosity is the key trait predicting a person’s ability to innovate by coming up with novel ideas. This is why, at Prisma, curiosity is one of the core four traits (called the “Prisma Powers”) we build in learners.

Curiosity is equally important as any one school subject, because having a curious mind means continuous learning. In a world changing as rapidly as our own, where people must constantly adapt and learn, this is a vital capacity.

In this post, we will use insights from neuroscience, the education field, and our curriculum to help you build curiosity in your children or students.

What is curiosity?

Curiosity is the desire to seek new information and experiences.

Intellectual curiosity is a natural human trait studied by scientists and philosophers for centuries. According to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, curiosity is "the feeling of being drawn towards something because it is interesting, novel, or challenging".

Having a curious mind is not only about being interested in the subject matter, but the willingness to ask questions and seek answers. Think about the person you know who always questions the status quo, defies convention, and falls down “rabbit holes” researching areas of interest.

Curious people share several common traits. They are open-minded, observant, and willing to take risks. They have a thirst for knowledge, and are not afraid of making mistakes. In the 5-factor model of personality, they would be high in openness.

Curiosity is associated with higher levels of well-being, better problem-solving skills, and more significant academic achievement. Research has also shown curious people have higher levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.

Why is curiosity important for learning?

Curiosity is essential for learning because it motivates learners to explore new information and ideas. When students are curious, they are more engaged in the learning process.

Neuroscience backs this up. A 2014 study by the University of California, Davis, found when people are curious about a topic, their brains are primed to learn not only about the subject itself but also incidental information. When participants were more curious about a question, they were able to better recall both the answer and the unrelated photograph that preceded it. The research suggests by piquing student curiosity, educators can prepare students to better remember what they’ve learned!

Research has also shown curiosity is associated with better academic performance, critical thinking skills, and student engagement.

Curiosity prepares learners for the challenges of daily life. In a constantly changing world, curious and adaptable learners are better equipped to handle new situations and solve problems creatively. Curiosity also encourages learners to explore their interests and passions, which can lead to fulfilling careers and personal growth.

What's Prisma?

  • Prisma is an accredited, project-based, online program for kids in grades 4-12.
  • We exist to ignite a lifelong love of learning and prepare kids to thrive in the future.
  • Our middle school, high school, and parent-coach programs provide personalized curriculum, 1:1 support from educators, and cohorts where kids build community.

Curiosity in Education

Despite the many benefits, the traditional education system largely deprioritizes building student curiosity.

Traditional schools stifle curiosity by:

  1. Not letting students follow their interests. Not every kid will be curious about every topic. At Prisma, we believe kids learn more when they go deep into ideas interesting to them. Beyond a few essential skills & concepts we expect all learners to grasp, we allow kids to choose what to learn.
  2. Focusing on answering a teacher’s questions instead of asking their own. Learning how to ask questions uncovering new avenues of exploration is an essential skill for lifelong learning. At Prisma, we use project-based learning, which encourages starting every unit with a big, interesting “essential question”.
  3. Not allowing for failure. Curiosity is a practice of embracing not knowing. Through emphasizing grades, scores, and traditional academic achievement, we teach kids learning is about being correct. But real learning, driven by intellectual curiosity, means being comfortable with making mistakes. At Prisma, we use mastery learning instead of traditional grades, where kids revise their work based on feedback, to encourage failure.
  4. Promoting conformity and obedience. Schools are part of a large system valuing following the rules, fitting in, and checking boxes over speaking up, standing out, and doing things differently. Truly curious people don’t accept “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or “because I said so” as an answer, but  it's the rebellious kids, when given a chance to shine, who develop into bold thinkers and change-makers.
  5. Presenting truth as “decided” rather than still being discovered. There is so much across history, science, and technology we don’t know. However, learners are not often exposed to unanswered questions, debates, and shifts in thinking in various fields. At Prisma, we’ve developed themes like Uncharted Territories and Unsolved Mysteries introducing big, unanswered questions (like “What is the probability that aliens exist?” and “Who was the real inventor of Bitcoin?”) to get kids curious.

There are some promising approaches in education to better foster curiosity:  

  1. Inquiry-based learning is a teaching method emphasizing asking questions and seeking answers. Students are encouraged to ask their own questions and explore topics interesting to them. This approach helps to foster critical thinking skills, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.
  2. Self-directed learning is a form of learning emphasizing autonomy and choice. Students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning process and choose their own topics of study. This approach helps to build self-esteem and motivation, and encourages kids to become lifelong learners.
  3. Some homeschool families take self-directed learning to the next level through unschooling, a form of learning without any formal learning activities or curriculum, learning through experience, exploring their interests, and self-directed projects.

Practical tips for building curiosity in learners

  1. Prime kids for learning by engaging their curiosity. In the research study cited above, we learned feeling curious at the start means learners will learn more. This could be as simple as allowing learners to ask questions about a topic before you’ve given them any information, or by “hooking” learners through a riddle, bizarre fact, or intriguing hint before you introduce it.
  2. Allow learners to follow their interests. At Prisma, we allow as much choice as possible. If you are trying to teach the skill of oral presentation, for example, why not let learners present on any topic they’d like? If you’re trying to teach genetics content, why not let learners develop their own questions to research after learning the basics?
  3. Answer questions enthusiastically and thoroughly. Avoid the temptation to wave away a learner question, even if it doesn’t feel relevant or calls into question the purpose of the activity. In fact, “Why do we need to learn this?” is one of the best questions to answer!  
  4. Explicitly teach how to ask questions. Resources like the Right Question Institute and Harvard’s Project Zero supply activities teaching learners how to ask specific, probing, and rich questions to inspire research and discussion.

By incorporating these ideas into the learning environment, you can help to build and support curiosity in learners, which can lead to better learning outcomes and lifelong learning.

Prisma Power: Applied Curiosity

In a world of infinite information, pure curiosity is not enough. There are certain skills learners need to be able to apply their curiosity. When you ask a question and type it into Google or ChatGPT, how do you know what to do with the answers you receive?

At Prisma, we define Applied Curiosity as the practice of harnessing one's natural curiosity to ask great questions and find the answers.

We develop Applied Curiosity by teaching:

  1. Research skills, allowing learners to find accurate and relevant information.
  2. Reading skills, helping learners to comprehend and analyze information.
  3. Data analysis skills, helping learners to interpret and understand data.
  4. Digital media literacy skills, helping learners to navigate the vast amount of information available online and to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources.

By developing these skills, learners can apply their curiosity to real-world problems and challenges, which can lead to greater innovation, creativity, and success.

Join our community of families all over the world doing school differently.

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