How to keep children curious. Five Questions Answered | Opinion


By Perry Zurn

Children are naturally curious. But various forces in the environment can dampen their curiosity over time. Can we do something to keep children curious? For answers to this question, The Conversation US turned to Perry Zurn, professor of philosophy at American University and author of three books on curiosity, including “Curious Minds: The Power of Connection”, released in September 2022.

1. Is curiosity abundant at birth?

Curiosity is a natural ability, present in non-human animals as well as humans from an early age. Beings of all kinds seek information, explore their surroundings, and innovate new ways to solve problems. Creatures large and small, from elephants to bees, engage in exploratory foraging by discovering new territories and resources, while apes – and even cells and viruses – innovate new behaviors.

Among human beings, most people – learned and non-learned – feel that children are particularly curious. Psychologist Susan Engel validates this meaning in her book “The Hungry Mind”. Engel observes children’s curiosity at work in different environments, from preschool nature walks and middle school science labs to questions around the dinner table. His research confirms that children are brimming with curiosity, expressed in the things they touch, the way they talk, and the way they interact with others. But what happens to this curiosity as we age?

Some people I meet lament the loss of their childlike wonder, while others take pride in having maintained or expanded it. What could explain the difference?

2. What kills children’s curiosity?

Although research clearly shows that children have a strong interest in asking questions, this interest can wane over time, especially in the school setting. A study found that preschoolers ask an average of 26 questions per hour at home, but less than two per hour at school. Another study showed that, on average, fifth graders expressed curiosity — by asking questions, staring or manipulating objects — less than once every two hours. Why?

Many things can dampen curiosity. Internet search engines and smart phones that provide immediate answers limit children’s ability to sit still with their questions and ruminate on their problems. Parenting styles that emphasize the value of questions only as a means to an end—like correct answers—limit children’s ability to cultivate questions for their own good. Finally, when schools teach children to only ask specific types of questions in specific ways, it can limit their opportunities to innovate by limiting their interest and research in narrow channels.

3. How well do K-12 schools stimulate curiosity?

Since teacher training focuses on imparting content and developing basic skills, teachers may not know how to spark curiosity.

To complicate matters, educators are often faced with impossible odds of increased class sizes, reduced resources, and increased pressure to achieve widespread and measurable results. As a result, many teachers teach “conformity” more than “curiosity,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, thinking back to his time as a student in Baltimore schools. In his experience, it was more important for the students to behave and learn the assigned material than for them to explore their interests and take risks. This is especially harmful to students whose creative intelligence is already less likely to be nurtured, such as students of color and students with learning differences including autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or dyslexia.

As astrophysicist and black feminist author Chanda Prescod-Weinstein points out in her recent book, “The Disordered Cosmos,” not everyone is encouraged to reach for — or understand — the stars. She sees black women as being particularly discouraged from their academic and scientific aspirations.

4. How can parents protect their children’s curiosity?

Paying attention to each child’s curiosity style and instilling a sense of pride in that style will go a long way in equipping children to maintain their curiosity. While children are naturally curious, they can express and pursue their curiosity in different ways. Research indicates that there are multiple dimensions or styles of curiosity.

Children have different learning styles, as do different creatures (Cavan Images via Getty Images).

A study I was involved in, for example, led by communication scientist David Lydon-Staley, showed that people browsing Wikipedia tend to either get busy – clicking on radically different pages; or hunters – by clicking on closely related pages. Does your child like to know everything about certain things? Or a few things about everything?

For the ancient Greeks, these two styles were best characterized by the hedgehog and the fox. According to Archilochus, the hedgehog “knows one thing”, but the fox “knows many things”. Following that instinct, in my book “Curious Minds,” written with neuroscientist Dani S. Bassett, we analyze 18 different creatures, from animals to insects, and characterize their unique curiosity styles. Maybe your child is more like an octopus, with curious arms reaching out in all directions, or a caterpillar, slow and steady.

5. What role can colleges play?

If people are to have the curiosity and creative imagination to solve pressing problems around the world, we will need to rethink what happens in the college classroom and what happens beyond.

Curiosity philosopher Lani Watson argues that while colleges and universities tout a central commitment to curiosity, they continue to rely primarily on “answer-focused education.” Time and again, the written exam, multiple choice test, or position paper is the gold standard by which students demonstrate what they have learned and what they have learned.

Asking better, more insightful, and more creative questions is rarely prized in educational settings except as a means to other ends – higher grades, more papers published, more discoveries or innovations. Growing social pressures to work longer hours on classes, jobs, and internships, and dwindling investment in a liberal arts education, are making questioning a dying art. Few students have the time or the encouragement to become curious out of curiosity.The conversation

Perry Zurn is an associate professor of philosophy at American University. He wrote this piece for The Conversation, where it first appeared.
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