Using Curiosity to Unlock Learning

Have you ever wondered what Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison had in common? These great geniuses and inventors all had personalities that were filled with curiosity.

Curiosity is a quality related to inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation and learning. It is heavily associated with all aspects of human development, in which stems the process of learning and the desire to acquire knowledge and skills. Characteristics associated with curiosity include learning, memory and motivation.


Why is curiosity important for learning?

  1. Helps prepare us for learning and enables greater retention

Researchers have discovered that students are more likely to learn and retain information about a subject if their curiosity has been stimulated. Boykin (1981) discovered that by asking students unusual and interesting questions before exposing them to the material enabled these students to retain this material, as their curiosity was first stimulated by the questions asked.

When you’re curious about something, your brain absorbs all information presented around that topic. Preparing material that is less interesting with information that is more interesting, will naturally assist in retaining more information.


  1. Helps reward learning

The drive to learn information or perform some action is often initiated by the anticipation of reward. In this way, the concepts of motivation and reward are naturally tied to the notion of curiosity. The idea of reward is defined as the positive reinforcement of an action that encourages a particular behavior by using the emotional sensations of relief, pleasure and satisfaction that correlate with happiness. Many areas in the brain are used to process reward and come together to form what is called the reward pathway. In this pathway, areas of the brain that are linked to the reward sensation, are activated.

Dopamine is linked to the process of curiosity, as it is responsible for assigning and retaining reward values of information gained. Research suggests higher amounts of dopamine is released when the reward is unknown and the stimulus is unfamiliar, compared to activation of dopamine when the stimulus is familiar. Therefore, curiosity releases dopamine, which activates the sensation of happiness and reward.


5 ways to use curiosity in your teaching practice

  1. Emphasize on questions and not answers

Questions are an excellent indicator of curiosity. Create an introductory lesson to a topic which allows learners to ask questions, and reward with points for questions based on quantity, quality, etc. The quality of a question not only reveals curiosity, but background knowledge, literacy level, confidence and student engagement.


  1. Personalise curiosity

Let students choose a topic for an essay, then refine that topic/theme until it’s authentic and personal to them. You could start with a general topic—climate change, for example—and then have each student refine that topic based on their unique background, interests, and curiosity until it’s truly personal and ‘real.’


  1. Allow for autonomy

Let students lead. Allow students to use a self-directed learning model and to take ownership of their learning. Curiosity is not sparked if learning is passive.


  1. Reward curiosity

Curiosity stimulates the feelings of rewards and gratification through intrinsic motivation. Therefore, offer students extrinsic rewards by incorporating gamification elements in your lessons.


  1. Instructional design curiosity

Don’t leave curiosity as a last-minute add-on to your lesson plan. Make sure to include instructional design in your learning material. Build in time for learners to question and explore material on their own. Plan activities that spark curiosity.


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