Curiosity is a primal urge like hunger. When we feel hungry we strive for food, when we feel curious we strive for new information or new experiences. Reducing hunger in the world, is probably something everyone can support. With curiosity it's the opposite. We should want to encourage curiosity.
I'd like to advocate for the adoption of Curiosity First principle. Learning is more engaging and fun while we are curious. Furthermore, experiments indicate that if we are in a curious state of mind, we are more likely to remember what we learn — even if the information to be learned is unrelated to what made us curious in the first place.
Curiosity is a key trait to optimize for whether you are designing educational activities, preparing a talk or writing a blog post. For me it's the first thing to think about — how do I make sure my audience is curious about what I have to tell?
In this post I'll explain how I currently understand and work with curiosity, we’ll start by looking at how we can inspire curiosity by allowing complexity when we teach.
To reduce complexity, we use names to refer to objects and phenomenons in the world.
Imagine that we didn't have the word "flashlight". We would instead have to refer to "portable rod-shaped battery-driven electric lighting device". By peeling off the name, we uncover a layer of complexity. If we continue, the words "battery", "electric" and "lighting" are again names that help reduce complexity. Without them, our flashlight would be a "portable rod-shaped electron flow to photon energy conversion device with storage container of electron potential difference" (I'm not a physicist, btw.).
We could continue and uncover even more layers, and at every layer there will be more things to be curious about. However, we often do the opposite. We use words such as "LED bulb", "battery", "leaf", "curiosity", "pedagogical", “algorithm”, "processor", "programming", etc. as if our audience already knows about all underlying layers.
When we communicate, we should instead help our audience develop a healthy curiosity in the subject we are presenting. We should inspire them to ask questions such as "how does a processor work?", "what does it mean to be programming?", or "what is curiosity?".
By allowing complexity, we help students uncover what lies below the mere words. We help them develop their curiosity and inspire them to ask questions about the layers below. As Richard Feynman explains in the book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999), it’s about “the difference of knowing the name of something, and knowing something”.
For me it is especially crucial to help kids develop a curious mindset, and encourage them to ask questions out the world. One who seems to have been really good at inspiring curiosity in his kids, is Melville Feynman, the father of Richard Feynman. A quote again from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, illustrates Richard Feynman’s upbringing:
“Looking at a bird he [Melville] says “Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown-throated thrush; but in Portuguese it’s … in Italian a …” he says “in Chinese it’s a … , in Japanese a …,” et cetera. “Now,” he says, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”
When I read the quote, I imagine Feynman senior's explanation continuing into how evolution has shaped the particular birds anatomy and survival strategies. Feynman’s tales about his father are probably somewhat exaggerated. At least very few of us would probably be able to explain everything in complete detail on the spot, as Feynman seems to suggest that his father did all the time. Another hero of mine, Seymour Papert, suggests a partial solution for that.
Acknowledge your limits, learn together
I’m not trying to argue that we should be able to explain everything in perfect detail, such as in Richard Feynman’s idolization of his father. However, we should embrace the complexities of the world and help encourage a deeper learning, even in the areas we as teachers feel uncomfortable. We should be better at acknowledging the limits of what we know, rather than trying to make it look like we know everything, when we don’t.
When confronted with tough questions we don’t know the answer to right away, our reaction must be to be curious ourselves, and try to discover the answer together with the students. And learning together is great! To illustrate why I often refer to the following quote from Seymour Papert's book The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (1993). Papert quotes a fifth grade teacher, Joe, who explains his difficulties when starting to teach programming as part of school curriculum:
“From the time the computers came I began to be afraid of the day my students would know more about programming than I ever will. Of course, at the beginning I had a big advantage. I came fresh from a summer workshop on Logo, and the students were just beginning. But during the year they were catching up. They were spending more time on it than I could. Actually, they didn't catch up the first year. But I knew that each year the children would know more because they would have had experience in previous grades. Besides, children are more in tune with computers than we grown-ups.
The first few times I noticed that the students had problems I couldn't even understand, let alone solve, I struggled to avoid facing the fact that I could not keep up my stance of knowing more than they did. I was afraid that giving it up would undermine my authority as a teacher. But the situation became worse. Eventually I broke down and said I didn't understand the problem—go discuss it with some of the others in the class who might be able to help. Which they did. And it turned out that together the kids could figure out a solution. Now the amazing thing is that what I was afraid of turned out to be a liberation. I no longer had to fear being exposed. I was. I no longer had to pretend. And the wonderful thing was that I realized that my bluff was called for more than computers. I felt I could no longer pretend to know everything in other subjects as well. What a relief! It has changed my relationship with the children and with myself. My class has become much more of a collaborative community where we are all learning together.” (from The Children’s Machine by Seymour Papert, 1993, p. 65-66)
Allowing yourself to admit that you don't know, gives you the opportunity to show how you learn. I've been trying to integrate this into my own practice for the last couple of years. Sometimes, I've even lied a bit to pupils, and made it appear that I didn’t know, just to show them my learning process. There still needs to be a hierarchy between teacher and student, the teacher should still set the agenda.
I’d argue that by evading tough questions, or trying to pretend that you know everything, you might run the risk of discouraging curiosity. If you evade a tough question posed by a student, you’re basically telling the student, “this is too complex to learn”. What we really want our students to know, is that they have the ability to learn whatever they set their mind to.
On the other hand, if you pretend to know everything, you will not be exhibiting our own curiosity. I think we need to teach curiosity by example, exemplifying what we are curious about, what we want to know.
So far, we have looked at how curiosity sometimes unwillingly is inhibited, and how we can begin to inspire it, now let’s look a bit closer at curiosity.
What is curiosity?
Curiosity is nature's way of ensuring we continue to develop and learn. Curiosity is a desire for information and new experiences, it’s a primal drive like hunger, sleep, and sex. One role is to reduce gaps in knowledge.
Toddler’s can ask between 70 and 200 questions an hour, with around 71% of the questions with the purpose of seeking information about the world. They’re gathering information about the world, reducing their knowledge gaps.
Curiosity is an intrinsic motivator, coming from within ourselves. Over time, as we grow older, our curiosity seems to decline, perhaps due to a high focus on extrinsic motivators in the educational system and in our day jobs (grades, money, awards, social status, etc.). However, we can still trigger curiosity even in adults. One way to make your students, readers, or listeners more curious is as simple as letting them realize that there is a gap in their knowledge about the world.
Highlight knowledge gaps
If curiosity is the desire for information, and we want to trigger that desire in people, how can we make them aware that there’s something they don’t know?
Let me give an example. What is data? Most people have an intuitive idea about the concept of “data”, but most people don’t know how data is defined, and their intuitive understanding might even be erroneous. For example, they might be thinking it has something to do with computers, but we also have data which is not yet digitized, so the computer can not be part of the definition.
Let’s say we want to teach the concept data to a group of students. Following the Curiosity First principle, we want to make sure they are curious before we can begin our explanation. I can’t just start explaining “Data is defined as a representation of …”. Instead, and what I usually do, is to get my students to discuss the questions “What is data? How do we define it?” in small groups for a minute or two before we start.
By forcing my students into a conversation, they quickly realize that their internal understanding is not very clear, and their wondering make them curious and thus ready to learn. When they are curious we can continue, with examples of data — digital or not — and build up the definition of data together.
Thus one way to trigger curiosity, is to pose open questions, and allow time for students to make up their own mind. Make them wonder, before you start filling the knowledge gaps. This technique isn’t always applicable. We need more tools in our curiosity toolbox.
A stronger way to trigger curiosity, is through handing over ownership of student learning to the students. Delegating ownership can be done by encouraging the students to come up with either their own questions to research or their own problems to solve within a topic, rather than a top-down approach. I will cover the feeling of ownership in a future blog post.
Conditions for learning
This post have been about creating conditions for learning by prioritizing curiosity first. When you are learning, begin by asking yourself: Why are you curious about that article or book? Why are you curious about that class, talk or lecture? When writing or teaching, begin your presentation by helping your audience into a curious mindset.
The next post will be about what Alfred Hitchcock can teach us about curiosity and highlighting knowledge gaps, in the context of computer science education.
I hope I haven’t completely satisfied your curiosity about curiosity. Here's a few pointers to what I’ve found interesting while researching for this post.