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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

How Schools Kill Curiosity

The agreed notion is we all come into the world curious. It is this curiosity that drives our learning. As we grow older we seem to become less curious and there is research to indicate that this 'less curious nature' is effecting children at younger ages.

This article will serve two purposes. The first, a book review of of Susan Engel's 'The Hungry Mind' and second a deeper dive into how the structure of many schools lead to the death of the curious mind in favor of obedience and busy work, "something about schools is decreasing the expression of curiosity, above and beyond inevitable, or intrinsic, developmental influences." Although the book goes much further than the effects of schooling on curiosity it does highlight important points I want to pick up on, from my own experience.

SE (Susan Engel) points out early in the book her desire to create a measurement for curiosity. Although the author has not yet achieved this goal, most notably due its profound difficulty, she has amassed a huge body of work on the nature of curiosity from a variety of perspectives, the impact from the family unit, social economic status as well as schooling to name just a few. The books also covers a variety of ages which makes it a worthwhile read not only for early childhood educators but teachers of different age groups as well as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles etc. SE, through her research has noticed something that I and I'm sure many others have also become aware of in both local and international education.

"I began to see that children’s curiosity was squelched in schools. And I also saw that several commonly held myths and preferences were silently abetting this squelching process.

(1) Most people, including teachers, implicitly believe that some children are curious and others are not. They don’t think of curiosity as something they can actively nurture or instill in all their students.

(2) Though most people say that curiosity is a good thing, when it comes to choosing between curiosity and compliance, the educational system pitches toward compliance.

(3) Many people think that nice teachers encourage curiosity and mean teachers do not. But in fact, encouraging curiosity has little to do with how nice a teacher is."

Although this article will be a critic on the schooling system I should spend sometime to highlight that the decreasing nature of children's curiosity doesn't fall completely on the shoulders of schools and educators. "The best predictor of the child’s curiosity was the mother’s curiosity, which showed a strong positive association." In the book SE discusses the research that has examined the families role in developing their child's curiosity, "children investigate more when they’ve seen their parent do so" (Johns and Endsley 1977). How parents raise their children, model certain behaviors, talk to them and stimulate their curiosity has a deep impact on how actively curious their child will become.

"The cues children take from adults are powerful in the moment, but have long- term impact as well. Moreover, the influence extends beyond problem solving. Children also learn from the adults around them what kind of stance they can or should take toward the objects and events they encounter as the day unfolds. This is particularly important when it comes to inquiry. Because, as should be clear by now, inquiry does not bubble up simply because a child is intrinsically curious. Nor does it simply erupt when something in the environment is particularly intriguing. Whether a child has the impulse, day in and day out, to find out more, ebbs and flows as a result of the adults who surround her."

In one research study children were asked about their favourite places. Children who lived in rural areas often said the woods but "even the boys who were fascinated by the woods, and described it as one of their favorite places, rarely or never went into those woods. The cautionary things their parents had said seemed to offer a powerful constraint on their willingness to investigate." Although we often don't think so, children listen to adults and if children grow up in a house where the adults frequently say things like "stop", "don't do that", "dangerous" etc. these will affect a child's brain when they encounter curious things in future.

"However, by the time they are toddlers, they are not all equally curious— some continue to detect novelty with enthusiasm, following up with any investigation possible. Some seem startled and fearful when encountering new experiences, and still others seem slightly dulled— as if the discrepancy between what they know and what they encounter doesn’t tug at them the way it does other children."

Children are going to school earlier and earlier for longer periods of time. A few decades ago a four or five year old might of attended school for half a day, now children as young as two attend school for eight to nine hours per day. In fact, every kindergarten/K-12 schools I have taught at in China, since 2010, started at age two. Whether the adult is a family member or teachers their affect on the development of curiosity is substantial.

"In many instances, we think of children becoming more independent of the adults around them as they grow older. They learn to walk and can get places on their own. They learn to talk and can communicate with people who don’t know them well. They become more able to function without the security of a loved one nearby. And yet, in the case of curiosity, adults only become more important as children develop. When it comes to finding out about the world around them, toddlers acquire a particularly potent way of using their parents to sate their curiosity."

The stay home parent has one child to deal with, possibly two or three. This is very different to that of school where even two and three year olds could be in a classroom of around 20-25 children. When it comes to research we know what we should be doing, allowing them to play and supporting learning through play. What is play but children using their curiosity to explore, interact and understand the world?

"studies have shown again and again that when people want to know, they learn. Inciting children’s curiosity is the best way to ensure that they will absorb and retain information."

Unfortunately, many schools don't run on best practices, instead following scripted lessons and learning criteria. These carefully scripted lessons that don't allow for deviation promote the use of whole group teacher directed instruction. Read this screenshot extract from SE book on an observed kindergarten circle time.

In kindergartens and schools where the learning objectives consist of long lists, teachers have little time to focus on curiosity and instead feel the pressure of ticking of acquired knowledge expected of them from their leaders and governing bodies. In fact, many educators across all age ranges complain about the amount of testing, tracking and objectives they need to meet to keep children at a certain level.

"The impediments to curiosity in school consist of more than just the absence of enthusiasm for it. There are also powerful, somewhat invisible forces working against the expression and cultivation of curiosity in classrooms. Two primary impediments are the way in which plans and scripts govern what happens in most classrooms, and the pressure to get a lot of things “done” each day."

"Our impression was that most of the time teachers had very specific objectives for each stretch of time, and that a great deal of effort was put into keeping children on task and in reaching those objectives."

"Mastery rather than inquiry seemed to be the dominant goal for almost all the classrooms in which we observed. Often it seemed that finishing specific assignments (worksheets, writing assignments) was an even more salient goal than actually learning the material. In other words, the structure of the classroom made it clear that the educational activities we saw were not designed to encourage curiosity— nor were teachers using the children’s curiosity as a guide to what and how to teach."

Children learn from these adult/teacher cues. If teachers regularly shut down, ignore or pass over students wonderings they soon learn their curiosity is of no use in the world compared to giving the answer the adult expects. Basically you use it or lose it. Losing the ability be curious is not only devastating long term it also counter productive short term.

Here are just some reasons why;

"Questions represent a unique type of search behavior, in that they offer us a window onto the mental experience of curiosity. When children ask questions, we find out something about what interests them, what particular information they are seeking, and what it is that sates their appetite."

"We’ve had experimental evidence for at least the past fifty years to support the idea that children’s intrinsic interest is the most powerful ingredient for learning."

"Subsequent research has shown that children often act as informal teachers, scaffolding one another’s strategies, skills, and ways of thinking across a wide range of activities and settings. Peers affect one another in all kinds of ways. We know that the presence of peers can lead young teens to act more impulsively than they would on their own, to change their judgments about objects and people, and to help other children when they are in need. Recent evidence also shows that knowledge spreads horizontally through peer groups."

If schools and teachers want to improve learning and do away with the notion of increased school days, after school clubs and endless homework to keep up they need to give children more time to play. For kindergarten I might convince some of you but for primary up the word 'play' might have less positive connotations. But play for older children is just as important and like I said, what is play but being engaged and curious about what you are learning.

"In order to try things out, learn from one’s own experiments with objects, and answer one’s own questions, children need plenty of time, and the time has to be free of an adult’s script (first you do a, then you do b, follow these instructions until you accomplish c). In the story I told about the teacher saying “I’ll give you time to experiment at recess. This is time for science,” it was clear that she felt she had to be very careful with the children’s time, to make sure the learning objective was achieved. There are two problems with her response. First of all, she assumes that the important questions to answer are the ones she has supplied, rather than the ones the children might come up with; and second, she assumes that she can regulate the time it will take for any question to be answered."

"One of the reasons teachers often balk at giving their students plenty of time to explore, follow false leads, and browse is that they feel such pressure to help children achieve learning goals that are obvious, explicit, and measurable. Along with these goals is a somewhat new emphasis on the value of ensuring that children understand just what it is they are supposed to learn or, as the case may be, have already learned. This is embodied by the widespread use in U.S. schools of something called “SWIBAT,” which stands for “students will be able to. . . .”Teachers are encouraged to put a SWIBAT on the board at the beginning of class"

Other teachers might still disagree and say that their students are highly engaged in their class and complete the vast amounts of tasks required by the curriculum in the 40 minutes or so every day. It is important to understand the difference between engagement and curiosity. Although curiosity leads to engagement the same isn't necessarily true when reversed. For example, if i was to deliver a lecture to you on the history of the dictionary (a module during my university days) many of you would not be curious or engaged in that topic. If throughout the lecture I offered rewards, such as money for answering my questions you would probably focus on what I'm saying in order to get that reward. That's engagement of a sort. Yet once you left how many of you would be eager to continue learning about the history of the dictionary? Not many I would guess which shows the absence of curiosity and that listening, answering, engaging in an activity doesn't mean it contains real curiosity.

"Most of the time children are expected to learn things for one of three reasons: they are afraid of what will happen when they don’t learn it; they want the reward they will get if they do learn it; or they are convinced that learning it is essential to their future well- being (a sort of long- term, hypothetical reward). When children have trouble learning, we think we need to teach it in a different way, or impress upon them the importance or usefulness of what they are learning. We encourage them to try harder, or spend more time trying to learn, even though it’s usually more effective to elicit their interest in the material."

There is also a possible link to the importance of the collective mission and values of a school. Take a look at the extract below explaining the research of observing children's curiosity from kindergarten to grade 5.

Even though some classes/teachers had students who demonstrated more curiosity, in other classes the level of curiosity was much lower. The adults in the room matter beyond the expectations of the curriculum that might be keeping them from giving children more free time or following their questions. This means that even in a school, free of the pressures of many of today's classrooms there is no guarantee children's curiosity will be sufficiently supported. Let me focus a little more on my favourite age group, early childhood. Research shows us that "Children are learning, by the time they are three or four, just how useful, satisfying, and admirable it is to be curious, or risky and troublesome." Yet kindergartens are becoming more and more risk free, with materials that don't spark curiosity. Teachers, worried about children getting hurt can stop children exploring out of fear of getting in trouble or doing something wrong.

"when students are in a learning situation that makes them nervous, their curiosity is depressed. Though the primary focus here is on preschool and school age children, Peters’s research suggests that anxiety is a powerful moderator of exploration and that teachers can be one source of such anxiety."

"the classroom environment is as important an ingredient in a child’s curiosity as his or her age. But what is it in a classroom that serves to encourage or discourage investigation? We found that there was a direct link between how much the teacher smiled and talked in an encouraging manner and the level of curiosity the children in the room expressed."

In play based kindergarten's that are Reggio Inspired great emphasis is put on the environment as the third teacher. Educators decorate the environment to encourage children to explore. For new educators to such an approach they can struggle to adapt or believe in this when they don't see children doing what they think they should be doing. This feeling can come from the teacher not doing enough to spark, follow and support children's curiosity.

"But as we know from a vast array of research, including some I have already described, adults influence children in other ways as well. Children watch adults react to objects and events, they listen to what adults say to other people, and they watch what adults do. Imagine a child who has two teachers. One asks questions, not only to the child, but to others as well, or even to herself. She looks things up in books. She looks out the window with interest; she watches as her students make things, or play with one another. Now imagine this child in the room just down the hall. This teacher rarely studies the children while they are playing. She knows a lot of answers but seems uninterested in things she doesn’t know about. She is eager to steer the group away from topics she knows little about. She does not inquire about the children’s experiences beyond school. She is warm, friendly, and energetic, eager for her students to learn what she has planned for them, but rarely shows an appetite for what she doesn’t know. Would a child’s own curiosity be influenced differently by these two teachers? Might not a teacher’s expression of curiosity provide an invitation or a prohibition?"

Curiosity is important. It might even be and absolute necessity for a successful life. It can be taught like algebra or scheduled like PE class. It needs to be tended to, nurtured, allowed to grow and protected.


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