10 Ways to Foster a Culture of Curiosity in Your Learning Organization

Do we want to nurture a culture of earning or a culture of learning? That was the driving question behind the Beyond Letter Grades MOOC that I hosted in 2014, and it remains a driving questions for much of my work in education. More recently I’ve started to review the existing research on curiosity, with special thanks the work of Todd Kashdan. In his text Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, Todd makes a compelling case for the value of nurturing curiosity in our lives. His journal articles provide further insight. In “How are curious people viewed and how do they behave in social situations”; Kashdam, Sherman, Yarbro and Funder (2013) note links between curiosity and “tolerance of anxiety and uncertainty, positive emotional expressiveness, initiation of humor and playfulness, unconventional thinking, and a nondefensive, noncritical attitude.” In “Interesting things and curious people” by Silvia and Ksashdan (2009), they reference connections between curiosity and intelligence, physical health, happiness, even positive relationships. Kashdan and Yuen (2007) also wrote, “Whether highly curious students thrive academically depending on perceptions about the school learning environment.” They found that, “the benefits of curiosity are activated by student beliefs that the school environment supports their values about growth and learning; [and] these benefits can be disabled by perceived person-environment-mismatches. In my words, one size does not fit all, but the student perception and experience seems to be of critical import

Reading the research on curiosity is part of my effort to reconsider the priorities in our learning communities. As it stands, it is hard to deny that our larger educational system emphasizes a culture of earning. College is divided up into credits, and I often see excellent students struggling to take as many credits as possible. Contrast that with a student who takes fewer credits so she can dive more deeply into a couple of topics. Instead, the student ensures a schedule and workload that is counter to feeding curiosity and deep learning. It is about earning the credits that leads toward earning the degree. I’m not disconnected from reality so much that I ignore some of the practical factors of cost and time, but a culture of earning will continue to diminish the value of formal education unless we do something about it. It is, I contend, one of many reasons why there is so much criticism about the cost of higher education. Cost is out of control, but it doesn’t help that we also have K-12 schools prioritizing things like standardization, testing, analyzing data, and measuring success by things like GPA, test scores, scores, and grades; and we have a higher education system that often seems more interested in cost and time to graduation than value and depth of learning. Where do we leave the time and emotional space in the lives of learners to feed their curiosity and cultivate a love of learning? It happens for some students, but it seems to be despite the system that we’ve created. Some wonderful teachers and professors create space for curiosity to grow, but students remain inhibited by an overall system focused on earning and performance.

As explained in a 2013 whitepaper from the Center for Curiosity:

“Yet despite the ubiquity of such experiences, the majority of our schools and curriculums seem not to consider curiosity at all, focusing instead on rote memorization, subject-specific skills, standardized assessments which emphasize learning minimums, and disciplinary procedures that encourage silent knowledge consumption rather than inquisitiveness or interaction. Such practices tend to emphasize outcomes over the learning process. Furthermore they limit what children should or can learn and prevent any exploratory learning that fosters curiosity and leads to more sustained educative engagements” (Shankar & Durrani, 2013).

Nurturing a culture of curiosity in our learning organizations has immense potential for improving the lives and experiences of learners. It will contribute to positive outcomes (as we see in learning oragnizations that already do this), and figuring out how to make values like curiosity and the love of learning central in learning organizations might even help reverse some of the negative attitudes and critiques about K-12 schooling and formal higher education.

How do we get started? As I begin to think and learn more about curiosity, I offer ten steps toward nurturing learning communities rooted in curiosity and a love of learning. These apply to the K-12 setting, higher education, and almost any other learning organization.

1. Minimize the focus on scores, test performance, rankings and earning certain grades.

These all shout culture of earning. It doesn’t mean we need to ban them, but if we want it to really be about the learning, then we need to have policies, processes, practices and a most importantly a culture that truly celebrates learning itself, not these numeric symbols that we associate with it.

2. Encourage risk-taking, experimentation and exploration.

Where and how often are these attributes a part of the frequent, daily experience of learners in our organization? This also means that we need to go beyond just teaching in a fun an enthusiastic way. It is great for a teacher to be curious (because it is contagious), but we are trying to help nurture people who have a personal connection with curiosity and a love of learning. One way to get at this is to introduce students to environments and experiences that they’ve never imagined or experienced before; but do so in a way that gives them adequate safety so that anxiety doesn’t muzzle the curiosity.

3. Provide space for deep learning.

Yes, there are times for survey knowledge and exploration, but curiosity breeds more curiosity, and some of the most engaging learning experiences come from being getting lost in the study of something…sometimes for hours, days, weeks, or months. How much does that happen in your school? This also means leaving room for what I call lopsided learning, students having deeper insight into some areas than others because of where their curiosity leads them. Of course, there is need for shared learning experiences around some topics considered valuable for modern life and citizenship, but there is also need for different types of people with distinct strengths, passions, interests, and skills.

4. Celebrate and encourage calculated risk taking.

Taking calculated risks in the pursuit of knowledge or discovery is a great way to spread curiosity in a culture. Different learners will have varying levels of tolerance for risk and the associated anxiety. Over time, all learners can build growing confidence and their curiosity will drive them to endure stress and anxiety associated with some risks. This can become a powerful cycle among individuals and the overall community.

5. Reframe failure as a tool for learning, and de-shame it.

We all know the famous Edison quote about failures. We learn from them. They come hand in hand with #4, risk-taking. Failures are wonderful tools for learning. Failures in our effort to learn something are not to be sources of shame, but sources of feedback on the learning journey. Help learners discover how to suck the marrow out of temporary setbacks and failures. There are too many nutrients in failures to let them go to waste.

6. Teach and celebrate the art of asking powerful, sometimes provocative, and compelling questions.

Questions are invitations into the world of curiosity, unless they are just asked so we can teach students to memorize a cookie-cutter response without deep understanding and exploration. Ask open-ended questions. Maybe consider reviewing some of the great resources on socratic teaching. Also think about how we can teach students to frame and ask questions; and then how to come up with ways to explore and discover answers.

7. Build deep knowledge, understanding and a shared vocabulary around the research on signature strengths and non-cognitive skill development; especially those under the category of “wisdom.”

Some make false assumptions that being curious or loving learning are unnamable, fixed traits in learners. While some may be predisposed to be more curious than others, there is a helpful body of literature showing us that these traits can be nurtured and that there are significant benefits to doing so. Also help learners discover and leverage their signature strengths. There are several simple survey tools that serve as great discussion starters.

8. Keep it central in the community conversations.

Amid all the other priorities, the interest in curiosity can get pushed to the side. So, don’t let that happen. Talk about it all the time. Cast the vision for a culture of curiosity over and over again, and in different ways. Tell stories of curiosity. Celebrate evidence of curiosity. Continue to share resources and research about curiosity. If curiosity and the love of learning become the dominate conversation among teachers, students and school leaders; that is a promising sign.

9. Put the Curious on Display

Bring in guest speakers and guest mentors from diverse fields, disciplines and walks of life. These are people whose curiosity compelled them into intriguing and high-impact living. These might be scientists, authors, artists, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, public servants, athletes, health care providers, clergy, along with people who chose the less traveled paths in life with great benefit. The research seems to show that curiosity is contagious, so why not inject high doses of this wonderful virus into your community and watch it spread? Having someone there to share for an hour is nice, but if we can get people to hang out for a day or week, that is even better. Let them connect with individual learners and groups enough for the curiosity bug to spread.

10. Provide opportunity for learners to share their curiosity with one another.

If, as I noted in #9, curiosity is contagious, then we want to do whatever we can to help it spread. We can bring in the curious from the outside, but we also want to find ways for learners to share their passion, excitement and discoveries with one another. We are looking for rich descriptions that paint vivid pictures for students about the life of curiosity.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, but these ten provide a great start in helping to make the shift from a culture of earning, to a culture of learning; one that is notably interested in curiosity and a love of learning.

4 thoughts on “10 Ways to Foster a Culture of Curiosity in Your Learning Organization

  1. Pingback: The Dark Side of On-Time Graduation

  2. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thanks for the comment and question. Here are some ideas. In terms of experimentation, consider “experiments” where we do not already know the outcome. For example, suppose a social studies teacher invited students to conduct an experiment that set up a modern day “Good Samaritan” situation. There is someone is need, and they monitor to see different people’s reactions. Who helps and who does not? What if you change something about the person in need? How does that impact whether people help? Or, what about a writing class where students conduct experiments to see how different people react to a certain paragraphs they write. Then they adjust something about the paragraph and see how people respond differently. Or what if a student or group has the challenge of reaching the most people with a positive social message. They might experiment without various strategies to see what is most effective; word of mouth, social media, statistics versus stories, etc.

    In terms of “risk taking”, anything can be a risk depending upon the person. Giving a speech in front of a small group of people is a huge social risk for some and not for others. However, what I was talking about with risk-taking is removing some of the unnecessary contrived risks so that students can focus on risks associated with learning new things. For example, if you have a major class project and you are meticulously focused on assigning points for every stage and every required element of the project; you might find students playing it safe with their work and projects. They don’t want to take risks on trying something more creative or outside-the-box because the stakes are too high with the exciting grading system.

    • dawblack

      Thanks for your response. I am thinking in particular about risk-taking and how to emphasize this more within Lights Academy, studying whether that is worth finding a way to add this within the core values of the experience and how this would be practically addressed.

  3. dawblack

    I know you talk a lot about risk-taking and experimentation, and I believe in those things as well, but what are some examples of how that is accomplished or looks like in a K-12 setting, from your perspective? I would like to help people move beyond the abstract to be able to review something tangible in connection with this.

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