Curious kitten

Ofsted 2012: Developing curiosity

by FGTO on November 10, 2012

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

– Albert Einstein

In the Ofsted school inspection handbook, September 2012, as part of their evidence-gathering around how schools promote spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, they are reminded that evidence will include how their curiosity in their learning is developed.

“103. Evidence of pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development can be found, for example, where pupils:

• are reflective about beliefs, values and more profound aspects of human experience, using their imagination and creativity, and developing curiosity in their learning.”

Coincidentally, just as I had started to research for this article, a teacher asked me at the end of a twilight workshop on questioning if I had any ideas as to how show could get some of the children in her Year 2 class to be curious. She told me that it didn’t seem to matter how many unusual objects, experiences etc. she provided as stimuli, there were one or two children who just didn’t seem to want to ask any questions or show any curiosity at all.

As I read more about it, I began to realise just how complex the concept of “curiosity” is. The more I read, the more I wanted to know and understand, and wondered why I was so curious. Still with me?
(I know…I should be watching Strictly!)

There are many philosophical discussions about the merits of curiosity, and many examples of where it is seen as a negative attribute –

“He (God) fashioned hell for the inquisitive.”
Saint Augustine

The (Mis)quote – “Curiosity killed the cat”  – a warning to those who ask too many questions.

For this post, I’m ducking the philosophical arguments regarding the merits or otherwise of curiosity for I doubt that this will be a discussion to enter into at the point of inspection.
(In any case, I believe that in the context of learning – it is absolutely meritorious.)

Any discussion of curiosity must (I discovered) begin with Daniel Berlyne, considered to be the seminal mind in the study of curiosity. (I was proud to learn that he came from my home city of Salford)

In his article ‘A theory of human curiosity‘ he  associates curiosity with exploratory behaviour, identifying two forms of exploratory behaviour:

  • diversive (e.g., seeking relief from boredom)
  • specific (e.g., uncertainty, conceptual conflict).

It is specific curiosity that is of most interest to us as educators. Berlyne described specific exploration in the context of epistemic curiosity as “the brand of arousal that motivates the quest for knowledge and is relieved when knowledge is procured” (1960, p. 274).

According to Berlyne, curiosity seems to be evoked by situations that are new and strange. It is perceived to be the need to satisfy a drive, serving to fill a gap in knowledge, experience or understanding, (I suppose that this is why we speak of “satisfying” our curiosity.) and that is when this drive is reduced, that learning occurs.

E.g. When we ask or are asked a question, once the answer has been given, then the drive no longer exists and we can move on to something else. If the “answer” is not available, then the drive to solve the incongruence generally persists.

It’s suggested that because the learning is as a result of curiosity on the part of the learner, and therefore a personal drive to be satisfied, then it is more likely to be remembered and for longer than learning not based in reducing the curiosity drive.
This is of course a very simplified overview – you might want to read the full article! In my experience, and I’m sure yours too, it does seem to be that the things we’re curious about are much easier to remember. (They might not be easier to understand, but when the understanding comes, then the learning sticks.)

So what can we do?

Assuming we agree  that curiosity is indeed a good thing to encourage in order to facilitate learning, as a teacher, how do you promote it?
Providing students with adequate guidance whilst giving them the opportunities for exploration is  easier said than done.
As indicated by the teacher’s question described earlier, not all students are highly curious, and what might stimulate curiosity in some students might result in anxiety for others.

Below are 5 strategies you could try in order to stimulate and promote learners’ curiosity:

1. Make links:

One of the most distressing things for human beings (and probably all animals) is not knowing or understanding a state of affairs.

Berlyne argues that patterns will be most curiosity-arousing at an intermediate stage of familiarity. If they are too unlike anything with which the subject is familiar, then they will not provide enough conflict to stimulate curiosity, whilst too much familiarity will remove conflict by being as expected. So, if we present learners with ideas, concepts objects etc. which are a little familiar, but don’t quite fit with what they think they know or understand, then they will (in an ideal world) experience an internal drive to resolve that gap and hence satisfy the curiosity drive. If the ideas, concepts or objects are way outside their experience, they might just not be interested at all. Consequently, the more links we can make with learners’ experiences and prior learning, the better the chances of arousing their curiosity and desire to make links themselves in order to add to their mental ‘jigsaw’.

2.  Create conflict (and resolution):

No…not a fight…I’m talking about ‘cognitive conflict’.
Create conflict in their knowledge or understanding

If you can create some conflict in their thinking, the learners will feel compelled to resolve it, resulting in discussion, research, reflection.
When they are finally able to resolve the conflict, they will hopefully be rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction.

3.  Encourage exploration

Encourage students to learn through active exploration and investigation. Although lessons are tight on time, encourage learners to continue their investigations beyond the lesson and to report back.

4.  Encourage questions…always.

Model curious behaviour by asking and encouraging questions. Keep the questions open such as “I wonder why…..”, “I wonder what would happen if…”, “I wonder if that always happens?

Perhaps as plenaries, encourage learners to generate “I wonder” questions, or have an “I wonder……” board for students to add their questions to.

5.  “Sell” your lessons

Bloggers and advertisers spend a lot of time fostering curiosity; it’s their job to get your attention and to get you asking for more.

They tap into your wants, needs, pain, interests, insecurities and egos to draw your interest and curiosity. The headline is the first tool they use and once they have you hooked, the product has to follow through, but they know that getting your interest in the first place is a vital step.

Try giving your lessons or units a killer headline to stimulate interest. (I’m not suggesting these will crush all barriers to learner curiosity….but they might be fun to try!)

Here are a few examples:

Benefit driven headlines

  • Cut the time you spend on algebra with these easy tips.
  • Three easy ways to improve your chances of getting an A*
  • Stay ahead of the game in……
  • How spreadsheets can save you time.

Question headlines

  • What if you could ……. in just one hour?
  • Would you want to know how to [benefit] by getting rid of [pain]?
  • Are you missing out on ….. by not using …..?
  • Should you be worried about…….
  • Can noise make you ill?
  • How can music affect your brain?

Editorial headlines

  • What most students don’t know about their own brain!Avoid these mistakes most students make when ………
  • Why most companies fail to solve their [pain]
  • 10 things you need to know about ……..The algebra survival guide
  • What most people don’t know about ….
  • The shocking truth about bacteria!
  • Three keys to success with numbers
  • Master percentages in one hour!
  • Why is our country shrinking?
  • 5 maths mistakes most people make!
  • Is a million really a big number?



I admit, I was a subscriber to the “All children are innately curious and we ‘beat’ it out of them through formalised education” movement, but the more I read, the more I started to question, especially when I came across this article by Steven Dutch, professor of Natural and Applied Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay argues that if curiosity were indeed innate, then it would be almost impossible to stifle.

Writing this post has certainly created a lot of cognitive conflict for me!

I’m curious as to your thoughts……



BERLYNE, D. E., A theory of human curiosity , British Journal of Psychology, 45:3 (1954:Aug.) p.180


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