Curiosity and its place in formal education

Curiosity motivates learning. It arises when learners perceive their knowledge or understanding of a situation is incomplete; they are aware that they have ‘unfilled holes’ in their knowledge and a desire to ‘fill these holes’.


It is important to recognize developmental trends in how learners show curiosity. Young children, show unbounded innate curiosity and are ‘self-driven to explore their environment. This curiosity is ego-centered or self-directed. Before they begin to speak, their behaviours suggest implicit goals or purposes for learning. While it is unlikely that they are telling themselves, “That’s unusual/strange. I didn’t expect that “, their range of behaviours is consistent with this. They do not need to be taught how to be curious.

The display of egocentric curiosity diminishes as with progress through formal education in parallel with their awareness of peer group pressure. They learn that personally-initiated curiosity does not fit easily within classroom dynamics. Perhaps because of the ‘culturating process’ of formal education, it is replaced institutional or ‘socially mediated’ curiosity. Classrooms teach students how to be curious in ‘socially acceptable ways’. An implicit assumption seems to be that the knowledge taught in formal education doesn’t ‘mesh well’ with innate curiosity, that it is not learnt through a fostering of personal curiosity.

Students learn the importance of being curious in socially acceptable ways. Being curious can lead to other outcomes such as social acceptance (or rejection), access (or non-access) to other opportunities. Students may not be interested in the ideas but value the outcomes that go with them. Their impetus to learn can be conditioned by social valuing. They learn the concept of conditional positive regard and worry about doing things that may lead to rejection by others.

Many older primary and secondary students are reluctant to show curiosity because they may seem unusual or ‘odd’ by the peer group. They do not see the peer group valuing or encouraging individual curiosity or supporting it. Some students resolve this and show curiosity in ways that are appropriate to the changed situation. Others don’t and because they never display curiosity in the group context, they never have the opportunity of seeing whether the group will support it.

Some students have inaccurate beliefs about curiosity. They believe, for example, that because an idea does not attract their curiosity at one time, they will never be curious about it. They need to see that curiosity can change with familiarity with an idea. Factors such as the awareness of peer group influences, a trend away from egocentricity and the notion that there are times and places for displaying curiosity impact on how it is displayed.

Several issues are relevant here: whether

• The social directing of curiosity as part of socialization and culturation, is an essential aspect Western cultures and whether exposure to modern acculturating agents such as television and contemporary formal educational institutions.

• Formal educational institutions discourage the innate curiosity that guides early learning. These institutions often remark that students are less challenged and interested in learning.

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