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.

Badges, Self-Directed Learning, & Positive Psychology

What do digital badges and self-directed learning have in common? Add the concept of positive psychology, and it might be hard to imagine how these three intersect in a meaningful way. Yet, the intersection of the three is becoming a growing interest of mine, one that I suspect has promise to help us better prepare people for learning in a connected world. Badges, at least for some, are about meeting pre-established criteria for earning a micro-credential that the recipients control and display as they see fit. Self-directed learning is about people becoming increasingly independent in establishing goals, determining pathways to meeting those goals, self-motivating, tracking one’s own progress, and determining how to show or prove one’s learning to others when necessary. Positive psychology, among other things, is a field that produces research on well-being and success. Where is the cross-over and connection between these seemingly distinct concepts?

It is important to recognize that badges are a technology (applied systematic knowledge), self-directed learning is a concept or construct, and positive psychology is a branch or sub-field in psychology. Yet, they are all values-laden. Badges, by design, amplify the value of making evidence of learning visible and giving greater control of this credential to the recipient (although some badge platforms are seeking to adjust this). Self-directed learning amplifies the value of human agency. Positive psychology amplifies values like well-being and success. Put these values together and we begin to see possible synergies.

Some advocates of self-directed learning are cautious about the use of badges, but not all are cautious for the same reason. Some see badges as elements of the larger concept of gamification. As such, they look at them as extrinsic incentives, something that potentially detracts from a vision of self-directed learning that includes learners who take responsibility for motivation and volition of one’s own learning. Others are concerned because badges focus upon displaying evidence of learning, where many self-directed learning advocates seek to amplify process over demonstrable product. The moment you start to focus upon assessment, testing, and credentialing; you risk having the tail wag the educational dog. The end is no longer learning but evidence of learning. That is like confusing a piece of priceless art with a certificate of authenticity or other forms of validating a piece of art.

Proponents of mixing badges with self-directed learning might embrace that last analogy. A certificate of authenticity does nothing to take away from the art. Rather, it seeks to protect and validate its value to a broader audience. It bridges the world of artist with the realities of the art world and beyond. A certificate of authenticity has value because someone appreciates art that is authentic over that which is forged.

What about the role of positive psychology? In a recent post, I argued that more of us in education might want to attend to initiatives like the KIPP school’s focus on character strengths, recognizing that there is more to a student’s formation than academic achievements, especially given the growing research around the importance of traits like grit, self-control, optimism and curiosity when it comes to preparing people for success in work, family, and society.

Right now, many in education recognize the importance of character strengths, but most learning organizations have yet to re-imagine education in a way that intentionally nurtures student development in these areas. Similarly, it is rarely argued that self-directed learning is undesirable. It is just that there is little room for nurturing self-directed learning in many existing school models; on the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Character strengths are often commended, but they are less often nurtured. Educators are trained in teaching content more than mentoring students in character development and the capacity for self-directed learning. Even amid the recognition that these are important conversations, the national (and international) conversation in education remains largely focused upon academic standards.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are a growing number of learning organizations grappling with new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. What are the essentials of getting the most from the affordances of life in a connected world? Without attention to character strengths and self-directed learning, we risk perpetuating a new form of digital divide, one that is not determined by access but by the core skills and mindsets necessary to capitalize upon life and learning in a connected world. Yet, we also want to find ways to recognize student development and progress. It is amid this conversation that I’m beginning to see connections between the open badge movement, the longstanding but expanding conversation around self-directed learning, and the growing body of literature coming from positive psychology. Could it be that these three distinct conversations can blend to give us new and promising visions for education in a connected world?