Why is Curiosity central to better learning?

The wide-ranging debate on identifying effective teaching is inspiring. What concerns me is the disconnect between each year. Children can have 5 years of primary education with admired teachers in each year, yet seem to join secondary school having lost that spark for learning. Parents worry about this loss of interest hugely, because they know that until their son or daughter’s interest is re-ignited, they are likely to ‘fail’. As we welcome children from a variety of primary settings, including our own, it is very obvious that some schools seem to keep this enthusiasm for learning alive, whilst others clearly cannot.

At any given time in the school year, we have about 100 children in our Early Years settings, and with seven different ‘classes’ it really does provide fantastic evidence that at this stage, children are very curious about life as a whole, and deeply interested in many, diverse activities. Harnessing that in-built spirit of inquiry through our own junior years continues to keep children in the learning loop, and wonderful progress continues to be made. It is interesting that when learning by rote is needed, for example lines in a script, children are not bothered by that ‘need’, and interestingly some of the worst actors are those for whom learning comes easily,  but so too does their stage-fright! In short, we are what we repeatedly do, and those whose personalities are of the ‘show and tell’ kind make the most convincing stars in the limelight.

We have  just  been entertained (once again it must be said) by the Year 6 Boys and GirlsOB2014display feedback displays from their week away on the  Jurassic coast at Osmington Bay. The 4 day residential has many purposes, not least re-introducing our ‘gendered’ school to ‘coeducational’ working, but mainly to a whole host of physical and investigative activities on the foreshore. Hearing 11 year olds speak with considerable knowledge about the change in ecology as the depths in the inter-tidal region changes really does remind me that if ‘a child is good enough, a child is old enough’. It strokes our vanity to hear that these  ‘Sixers’ are every bit as successful in their learning as the GCSE students were the previous week, and we need to be careful about that. I remember studying foreshore activity as an Ecology student at University, and it is actually very difficult to be even more enthusiastic or successful when another 10 years older!

Over the past 6 years, since dropping the National Curriculum, our teachers have continued to work on creating a curriculum with curiosity as a driving requirement at its heart. How have we done that? By realigning the curriculum as a series of questions right the way up to age 14 for all subjects and then into the GCSE years as appropriate. That work has not been easy, and indeed some very hard yards needing to be made in the teeth of the welter of curriculum change forced upon us by Exam boards and Government dictat, because schemes of work content published by the Boards don’t make for thrilling reading it must be said. It most cases they effectively describe what needs to be learned in terms of  knowledge and what skills are to be assessed in terms of applying the knowledge.

By all means go hunt amongst our secondary schemes of work and see what I mean about our ‘Question-based’ curriculum, http://www.clairescourt.com/academic/curriculum-statements, and you’ll see what I mean. The evidence that such an approach to learning is the most effective in the long-term is widely spread and recognised in the profession across the world, and in some senses it is why the current coalition government have sacked their own previously tightly prescribed curriculum and asked schools to make up their own against a much thinner set of outlines. The trouble is of course that politicians are not educators, and they find it very easy to mislay their script, or actually not even learn it in the first place. Lord Nash, the Academies’ minister and chair of the Future Academies Chain of schools showed his complete ignorance about lesson planning earlier this month when suggesting that schools could save themselves money and teachers’ time by using a bank of pre-prepared lesson plans. What price  curiosity if it doesn’t fit the text-book?

box of chocolatesIn this excellent article entitled ‘Curiosity improves memory by tapping into the brain’s reward system’ published in today’s Guardian, “Researchers in the US found evidence that curiosity ramped up the activity of a brain chemical called dopamine, which in turn seemed to strengthen people’s memories. Students who took part in the study were better at remembering answers to trivia questions when they were curious, but their memories also improved for unrelated information they were shown at the same time. The findings suggest that while grades may have their place in motivating students, stimulating their natural curiosity could help them even more.” 

The report carries a conclusion from Professor Guillén Fernández at the Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging in the Netherlands: “Understanding the mechanistic underpinning of how we learn is of utmost importance if we want to optimise knowledge acquisition in education. The brain is the most individual organ we have. The authors of this report show nicely that individual differences in curiosity are associated with differential abilities to learn new information.”

And finally, this does not mean that learning work already covered needs to still have a Problem-based approach. Actually, motivation to learn does not just come from a sense of open curiosity, but a closed-circuit of needing to know ‘relevant stuff’ to achieve a short-term goal. The more we learn about the learning process, the more we understand that we need to have covered the ‘stuff’ in a number of ways, and perhaps even have forgotten it once at least before it becomes properly embedded in long-term memory. By adopting the Curiosity approach, we have maximised the routes available to promote learning using the brain’s own chemical reward, dopamine. As the lead researcher from University of California, Davis,  Professor Charan Ranganath puts it: “This work suggests that once you light that fire of curiosity, you put the brain in a state that’s more conducive to learning. Once you get this ramp-up of dopamine, the brain becomes more like a sponge that’s ready to soak up whatever is happening.”

In adult life of course, being curious may not be enough. As this article from the BBC archives highlights, actually there might be some thing better than dopamine helping our Nobel Prize winners –  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20356613 –  Chocolate! But that’s a blog for another time.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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