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Wired for Curiosity

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“Being curious is an essential part of human consciousness, a joyful feature of a life well lived.  But as recent research evidence shows, fostering curiosity holds a power that goes beyond merely feeling good. In fact, curiosity may be critical to student success in school.”  – Wendy L. Ostroff

Children are hard wired to be curious, so to create classrooms where superior learning can take place, we must cultivate curiosity. Genuine curiosity has been shown to release dopamine in the brain – this is the substance behind the motivation and attention that inspire discovery, experimentation, and real life learning. As I have been exploring the concept of curiosity, the work of Dr. Wendy Ostroff  caught my attention.  In her book, Cultivating Curiosityshe shares the connection between curiosity and genuine learning.

1.  Curiosity “jump-starts and sustains” the internal motivation that allows deeper learning to take place. Ostroff tells us, “When students are curious, teaching and learning are never a chore.” Research shows that external motivation will fade, but students allowed to act on their intrinsic curiosity experience deeper learning, greater self-confidence, and develop enthusiasm for the process.

2.  Curiosity releases dopamine – which does more than simply deliver shots of pleasure. It improves observational skills and promotes memory. When we are curious, our brains get a kick of dopamine, which has been shown to make us experience and remember information more deeply. As John Burroughs wrote, “Knowledge without love does not stick; but if love comes first, knowledge is pretty sure to follow.”

3.  “Curious people exhibit enhanced cognitive skills.” Research shows that people who are curious and seek out information learn more and learn better.

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We don’t have to teach children to be curious, they are wired that way. From infancy, it is our curiosity that helps us explore the world, make connections, and build understanding. It makes sense that our classrooms should be places of inquiry that are filled with enthusiasm and the joyful quest for learning. Children crave movement, exploration, and discovery. The problem – this does not fit the traditional view of classroom learning where the teacher is the one who possesses the knowledge and lets it trickle down to the masses – little vessels quietly waiting to be filled. Curiosity is the catalyst for real learning and as educators we hold “the power to nurture or crush it for others.” (Ostroff, 2016)

Hey, I am guilty of being a curiosity crusher. I know how it feels to have benchmarks to meet and material to cover. I have skipped over the discovery my students craved to get an assessment completed. I also know that the most glorious moments I have experienced as a teacher have been those when my students were engaged in genuine discovery – when they were in the zone of learning. Those times have always been guided by students acting on their curiosity. This is the fuel for learning.

One of the great joys of teaching is that we get a fresh start with each new school year. For thirty-plus years I have walked into the classroom saying, “This year I am going to . . .” Well, this year I am going to make the nurturing of curiosity a primary goal – not just for my students, but for me, too.

“When we as teachers recognize that we are partners with our students in life’s long and complex journey,  when we begin to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve for simply being, then we are on the road to becoming worthy teachers.  It is just that simple – and just that difficult.”  – William Ayers, “The Mystery of Teaching”

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