“The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”
A little incident back when I was in 6th grade is clearly etched in my memory. Learning about Akbar’s political brilliance in abolishing the Jizya Tax, the 12-year old me asked my teacher why we needed to study a 400 year old event. Of what relevance was it?
“To get marks, son”, she replied dryly.
I imagine that this is typical of the average Indian’s experience in school. Instead of being rewarded and encouraged, curiosity is looked down upon. It is seen as an inconvenience, and little more. After all, curiosity is of little consequence in passing examinations or scoring well.
But curiosity is fundamental to the learning process, and it makes learning enjoyable. Curious students not only ask questions, but also actively seek out the answers. Without curiosity, Sir Isaac Newton would have never formulated the laws of physics, Alexander Fleming probably wouldn’t have discovered penicillin, and Marie Curie’s pioneering research on radioactivity may not exist.
Recently, researchers from the University of California, Davis conducted a series of experiments to discover what exactly goes on in the brain when our curiosity is aroused.
While it might be not seem like a surprise that we’re more likely to remember what we’ve learned when the subject matter intrigues us, it turns out that curiosity also helps us learn information we don’t consider all that interesting or important.
The researchers found that once the subjects’ curiosity had been piqued by the right question, they were better at learning and remembering completely unrelated information. One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Matthias Gruber, explains that this is because curiosity puts the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it. So if a teacher is able to arouse students’ curiosity about something they’re naturally motivated to learn, they’ll be better prepared to learn things that they would normally consider boring or difficult. For instance, if a student struggles with math, personalizing math problems to match their specific interests rather than using generic textbook questions could help them better remember how to go about solving similar math problems in the future.
Curiosity starts with the itch to explore. A 1964 study found that babies as young as two months old when presented with different patterns will show a marked preference for the unfamiliar ones. The instinct to explore grows into an instinct for inquiry. Sometime after their first birthday, children start to point at things, looking up at their parent as they do so. One of the main reasons babies point is to signal interest, to say, “I want to know about that – what is it?” Before they are able to speak, they are asking a question with their finger.
By the time children from curious households go to school, they have a head start on their peers. Having absorbed more information from their parents and care-givers, they know more, which means they find it easier to learn more. As the educational psychologist Daniel Willingham says, when it comes to learning, there’s a powerful “rich get richer” effect; the curious kids get more return from the same effort than kids with a lower base of knowledge. That makes learning more satisfying for them, which in turn feeds their curiosity.
In 1999, Professor Sugata Mitra embedded a computer in a wall in a slum in New Delhi, connected it to high speed internet and left it there. Kids in the area, mesmerized by this technology, learn to use computers by themselves.
Over time his work has become famously referred to as the “Hole in the Wall Experiment.” He repeated this experiment in other parts of India and discovered how kids learn what they want to do.
His online videos of kids interacting with these computers have become the source of considerable discussion with one showing children recording music and playing it back for others only four hours after seeing the computer for the first time.
This little anecdote beautifully gives us an idea about the power of curiosity and the potential it has in Indian education.
Curiosity in the Classroom
But how can decades of a deeply entrenched system be unbound, and the potential of the people at its centre unleashed through curiosity?
Curiosity can be cultivated by particular kinds of classroom environments. Classrooms should be places where “curiosity flourishes” and in which dialogue and questioning is allowed to move in any direction, driven by students’ questioning. Instead of always being graded on their answers, students should be rewarded for asking questions that add value to the topic being studied.
Students should also be encouraged to tinker i.e. to constructively play with feelings, concepts, ideas, and materials. Tinkering can stimulate curiosity and lead to innovative outcomes like creating a new widget, essay, blog article, poem, science experiment, service, or product.
Scepticism as a virtue should be promoted in school students. The term sceptic literally means “to inquire” or “to look around.” A sceptic requires additional evidence before accepting someone’s claims as true. He or she is willing to challenge the status quo with open-minded, deep questioning. Galileo was a sceptic. So was Steve Jobs.
Our “chalk and talk” educational mindset, based on rote memorization, has stifled creativity and critical thinking; and the need for such initiatives has to be understood by parents, teachers, policy makers and other stakeholders in the education system of our country.
(Archit Puri is a business student by qualification but a plethora of other things by admission. He has diversified interests like behavioural economics, game theory, culinary arts, beer, startups, game of thrones and others omitted due to lack of space.)