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In Michael Lewis’ latest book ‘The Premonition: A Pandemic Story’, one of the chief protagonists, Carter Mecher, points out that people don’t learn what is imposed upon them but rather what they freely seek, out of desire or need. For people to learn, they need to want to learn. He uses a really interesting example about travelling by air and pre-flight safety instructions. He explains how airlines try to hammer these safety instructions into the minds of passengers and yet, despite hearing them several times, you would struggle answering questions, such as ‘How many exits are on a 757? Four? Six? Or Eight?’ and ‘What does orange and red lighting identify?’ and so on.

When I read this, it made me consider spaced and retrieval learning. Although this is not a perfect example, frequent flyers would, in essence, be learning how to be safe on a plane using the science of learning techniques that are often discussed in the classroom and yet, as Mecher points out, the knowledge won’t stick because they have no desire to learn it. 

Because there has been such a focus on retrieval learning over the past number of years, many teachers, myself included, will use a retrieval learning activity as a starter to the lesson. Often I will use the Retrieval Roulette template created by Adam Boxer to get them in the right mindset for learning but I’m now concerned that it won’t work as well as I would have hoped because they simply do not want to learn what I’m teaching, no matter how often I repeat it. 

So I got curious about curiosity and delved into the research to see how you can encourage curiosity in your classroom, so that students really want to learn your subject. Here are some of the ideas that might just help.

  1. THE HOOK AS A STARTER – Researchers from the University of California conducted a series of experiments to discover what happens to our brains when our curiosity is aroused. They asked participants how keen they were to learn the answers to certain trivia questions, such as ‘What Beatles song lasted longest on the charts?’ and whilst doing that, they carried out random fMRI scans to see what was going on in the brain. One key takeaway was that once someone had been made really curious, they ended up being better learners and retaining more information, even when it wasn’t related to the original question. So instead of having a retrieval learning quiz at the beginning of a lesson, why not have an unusual picture on the board? Or a song playing with a link to a topic? Or a big question related to your topic area that’s quite controversial? Or how about Nob Yoshigahara’s infamous number puzzle? Look it up…it’s a cracker.
  2. QUESTION CORNER – It’s questions that stimulate curiosity, so why not set up a postbox in your room  or online and encourage students to post any question they want on your subject. Explain that there is no such thing as a bad question and they can let their minds wander. Then once a fortnight, take a few questions from the postbox and get a conversation going.
  3. SHARE YOUR CURIOSITY – As teachers, we always have to remember that we are role models and therefore we have to continually show that we are still curious about our subject. I mean, if we’re not interested, why should they? In Economics, there is always a new piece of data that appears on Twitter and I love putting it up on the board and trying to explain what it makes me think. Then I will ask them and see if they’ve got any thoughts. It’s even better if it connects to some prior knowledge because, according to the research by Paul Silva, new and complex things are interesting if people feel they are able to comprehend them and master the challenges they pose. What that basically means is that prior knowledge is essential and you as a teacher can provide a bridge that connects old knowledge to new through a curious question or a new piece of data.
  4. VALUE INTERVENTION – As an early homework or class activity, ask students to write down why they think the topic they are studying can help them later on in life. This links to a study by Judith Harackiewicz and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin that asked students at college to think about how maths would play a role in their lives. After doing this, the students became more interested in the subject, much more so than when the teacher told them how valuable the topic was. In fact, this put off many students, who did not consider themselves good in the subject. Therefore it’s essential that students work out for themselves why learning is good and why it should be valued. Harackiewicz calls this ‘value intervention’ but teachers can help and so can parents by simply asking questions such as ‘Why do you think that might be useful knowledge to know if you were a…?’ or ‘Where could you use that information?’
  5. MOTIVATION CONTAGION – A study conducted by Burgess, Riddell, Fancourt & Murayama, suggested that motivation can be contagious. When students observe another student being curious about a subject, they are likely to become curious as well. Therefore it might be worthwhile, when considering a seating plan or how you organise your classroom, to put the most curious, motivated students next to those who struggle somewhat. You will have to facilitate collaboration but if you have that big hook at the beginning of the lesson and then use ‘Think, Pair, Share’, then you should see positive results.

If we can get our students to be as curious as Carter Mecher, then we would have done an exceptional job. Thanks to Carter’s curiosity, he ended up exploring the Spanish Flu of 1918 and from that ended up writing a Pandemic Plan that explained the importance of social distancing, wearing masks and targeting super spreaders. It could have saved thousands of lives. I say could but it didn’t…are you curious to find out why?


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