Jordan Carper began her class by asking students to write down on a sheet of paper three things they were curious about. She asked this question because she believed that curiosity was an essential ingredient for learning, but she usually came away feeling a bit disappointed whenever she did this exercise. Her students just didn’t seem to be that curious. But she shouldn’t have been that surprised.
Curiosity is often mentioned as a critical attribute of success. However, the reality is that we really don’t foster curiosity as a society. Think about our responses to children when they ask “why” or “how come” questions. And what about the saying that “curiosity killed the cat”?
Think about labs that students have in high school and college. Often these activities are so scripted that we have stripped away all elements of curiosity. Class sessions often take the form of technology-augmented presentations—at the expense of students engaging in genuine exploration of new concepts.
In the business world, return on investment and quick turn-arounds have become the driving forces. It’s hard to measure the financial impact of ideas arising from curiosity. Would any business today invest eight years of resources in developing Velcro where there wasn’t a guaranteed market?
Curiosity can be encouraged and developed. It’s also very fragile. That’s why many great innovators often struggle with conventional life journeys. Think about how many of our successful technology leaders dropped out of school because they were discouraged by the lack of curiosity in education. Our innovators in advancing new art forms often become discouraged by the restrictions placed on them by conventional institutions that lack curiosity. Leaders who become curious and challenge established thinking in the social and political world are often ridiculed.
Carper was determined to confront the curiosity vacuum that she saw. “Today in class, I want each of the discussion groups to develop a series of curiosity prompts that you’ll use in all of your discussions throughout the semester. For example, a curiosity prompt might start: ‘why didn’t they consider….?’ You can adjust your prompts throughout the semester if needed. In addition, at the end of each class, I am going to ask each of you to post a curiosity question about the material I covered that day on our class website.”
The results were better than Carper expected. At first, the curiosity prompts were weak but they greatly improved over the semester. As the prompts improved, the discussions also improved. The curiosity questions were remarkable in building more thoughtful engagement with the class content. Never had Carper seen such attention to the material she presented. Word got out about what Carper was doing and she was asked to present a workshop in her school’s annual Innovation in Education symposium. As she prepared for the session, she thought to herself, “I’m curious as to how best to do a presentation on curiosity to my cynical colleagues?”
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“You can’t just give someone a curiosity injection. You have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them.” – Ken Robinson (Author, speaker, and international advisor on education)
This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear on Wednesdays.