The Very Best Teaching Strategy Is (Are You Curious?)

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Anyone who has ever taught knows that, when a class full of students becomes curious about a topic at the same time, magic can happen. Teaching suddenly becomes much easier, and the teacher finds him- or herself in the enviable position of just riding that wave of curiosity and enthusiasm. We hear a lot about being the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage,” but that’s not always as easy as it sounds. When curiosity is present in large measure, however, becoming the guide on the side is simple. You just surface their questions, point them in the right direction, and get out of the way.

All of this is wonderful, of course, and a teacher’s life is certainly a lot easier when students are curious and engaged. But it’s not all about us, the teachers. The bottom line, as always, is student learning. So the question becomes, “Does curiosity lead not only to engagement, but also to learning?” And new neuroscientific research says, “Yes, absolutely!” In fact, the research suggests that not only will students learn the material they are curious about, but they will probably also learn well other material in the same lesson (about which they are less curious) just because they are in a curious state.

The Findings… Surprising and Not So Surprising

First, let’s look at the research in question. In a study published in the scientific journal Neuron (1), researchers put subjects in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, then had them look at a number of trivia questions and rate how curious they were to find out the answers to these questions. Subjects were then shown selected questions again one at a time, followed by a 14 second lag time, and then they were shown the answers. During the lag time between the question and the answer, subjects were shown a picture of a neutral face.

Later, subjects were given two tests. I bet you can see the first one coming. That’s right, the researchers tested subjects on their recall of the trivia answers again after leaving the MRI scanner, and then tested them again on the answers the next day. What they found was probably not surprising to any of us–that subjects had significantly better recall for questions and answers that they initially said they were more curious about. This finding proves what we all have experienced in the classroom–students learn material better if they are curious about it (a form of intrinsic motivation).

But that’s not all the researchers did. They also gave subjects a surprise test on the faces that were presented during the lag time between questions and answers. And here’s where the surprising part comes in. Subjects also had significantly better recall of the faces that had been presented during questions about which they were more curious. In other words, simply being in a state of curiosity had a “spill-over effect,” helping subjects to learn material (the faces) that they were not curious about and about which they didn’t even know they were going to be tested!

But what’s going on here biologically? The researchers explained in their conclusions that, when they looked at the brain images from test subjects, they found increased activity in two crucial brain areas. First, they found increased activity in the brain’s reward circuit, an area that relies on dopamine. It appears that the intrinsic motivation provided by curiosity actually stimulates the part of the brain that is heavily involved in tangible, extrinsic motivation. Second, they found increased activity in the hippocampus, the key brain region responsible for forming new memories (learning). And not only were these two crucial brain regions stimulated, but the researchers also found increased interaction between the two areas.

“So, curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance,” states Charan Ranganath, the study’s senior author, who is Professor at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology.

A Classroom Example

“OK,” you might be saying, “that’s cool and all, but how can I use this information in the classroom?” Fair enough. Let’s look at a classroom example, and I think you’ll see why I’m so excited about the results of this study.

I’ll use an example from Jeffrey Wilhelm’s book Engaging Readers & Writers With Inquiry: Promoting Deep Understanding in Language Arts and the Content Areas with Guiding Questions (2). This is a great book for any teacher, but especially for language arts teachers. As you can tell from the title, it’s about how to turn the units in your curriculum into inquiry units, using guiding questions about which students are curious as the entry points into the units.

The specific example I’m going to use is a model unit on Romeo and Juliet that Wilhelm details. I can almost hear you groaning through my computer screen as I type this! Yes, Romeo and Juliet, that thorn in the side of every ninth grader in America. I think you probably agree with me (either from your experiences reading the play as a student or your experiences having had to teach it) that student motivation entering this unit is usually not particularly high, at least if the teacher is using any of the more traditional approaches to teaching the play.

But Wilhelm doesn’t teach it the traditional way. In fact, the unit in which he teaches Romeo and Juliet is not even called the Romeo and Juliet Unit–it’s called the Relationships Unit. That’s because the entire unit is structured as an investigation into what makes relationships work or fail, with the guiding questions for the unit being, “What is a good relationship?” and “What factors ruin or threaten relationships?” Do you think those are questions your typical ninth grader wants the answers to? You bet! In fact, a good portion of their waking lives (and even their dreams) revolve around their relationships with those they are currently in love with, or at least lusting after. So, needless to say, curiosity is high.

Before students even get to reading Romeo and Juliet as the core text of the unit, they spend time reading other short, contemporary texts about relationships, they discuss relationships in small groups, they write about their own relationship experiences, they role play relationship counselors, etc. All of these activities lead up to their reading of the play, and ultimately to their final projects, which include choices such as writing a prenuptial agreement (or pre-dating agreement) for promoting a good relationship, creating an interactive relationship quiz or computer game that promotes understanding of good relationships, or creating a video documentary about views of good relationships in different cultures over time.

What about the reading of the play itself? Well, with the play now situated as the core text within the larger inquiry, it no longer appears to students as a huge chore they somehow have to struggle through. Instead, they might be asked, midway through the play, to write an argument about what constitutes a good relationship, using evidence from the play in addition to other texts and their own experiences. Of course, in order to understand what the text is saying about relationships, students have to learn how to work out Shakespeare’s language, vocabulary, and literary devices, but they willingly work through these challenges because it is all in service of finding answers to questions about which they are curious.

Bringing It All Together

Let’s finish off by looping back to the study cited earlier. Remember that there were basically two findings: (1) people learn better when they are curious about the answers, and (2) people, when in a state of curiosity, also learn other information better, even when it is information about which they are less curious.

Let’s tie that together with the Romeo and Juliet example. There is a great deal of important information about relationships in the unit, and this is material about which the vast majority of ninth graders are curious. So, all of the information about relationships goes along with study finding number one–students will remember a higher percentage of this material than normal because they are curious about it.

But don’t forget that second finding! There is still much material that students must learn about Shakespeare, his language, and his world, that comes up during the reading of Romeo and Juliet. Students must learn this material, as well, so they can find out what Shakespeare is saying about relationships. And even though most ninth graders are decidedly not curious about this material, they will learn it much better because they are already in a state of curiosity generated by the framing of the unit’s guiding questions. Talk about a win-win!

Your Turn Now

So now it’s time to put you on the spot. Can you think of a unit in your curriculum that contains important information that students really do need to learn, but about which they are not really curious? (I bet you can think of at least one example.) Can you reframe that unit so that it becomes an inquiry into a guiding question or two about which your students would be very curious?

If so, go for it! It will change the whole experience of that unit, for both you and your students. If you’re hesitant, remember that the scientific study cited here shows that curiosity improves learning not only of the information about which students are curious, but also improves learning of all the other information in your unit about which students are not typically as curious.

And if that’s not enough for you, let me quote Jeffrey Wilhelm about what happened when he made this change in his teaching of Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo and Juliet is a standard requirement of the ninth-grade curriculum. I have taught it off and on for more than 20 years as a great work of literature. Funny thing is, until I changed my methodology, my students never danced in the aisles or flushed with excitement over dear William’s words. In fact, they would often refuse to read it, give up in frustration and declare that it was boring. Some would sneak off and read Cliff’s Notes or Spark Notes.

“I marched on, chalking up their resistance to ‘kids these days,’ I guess. I’d plow through the play from beginning to end, like some kind of salesman pitching a product, with me often explaining the play line-by-line and scene-by-scene for my students.

“The tide turned when I began to reframe my teaching units around essential questions. In fact, this changed everything. I can hardly describe the improvement that occurred in my motivation, my instructional sequences, and my students’ interest in learning.”

That pretty much says it all. If you have not focused on creating an atmosphere of curiosity as a prime ingredient in your lessons and units, now is the time to start. After all, curiosity may have killed the cat, but it definitely brings learning to life!

References

1. Gruber, M. J., B. D. Gelman, & C. Ranganath. (October 22, 2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486-496.

2. Wilhelm, J. (2007). Engaging readers & writers with inquiry: Promoting deep understandings in language arts and the content areas with guiding questions. New York, NY: Scholastic.