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November 18, 2013

Why Curiosity is Key to Your Child’s Learning


Curiosity and interest-driven learning are more than just educational buzzwords here at AltSchool. They are at the core of what we do.

We’d like to explain why and how we use curiosity as a starting point for learning. We’ll also give you a few tips on how you can spark your child’s curiosity at home.

Why is curiosity important?

Research highlighted on Mind/Shift shows that when students are interested in what they are learning, they:

  • recall information better,
  • persist longer in learning tasks, and
  • put forth more effort.

Not surprisingly, students are especially drawn to topics related to their everyday lives. In a recent study of middle school and high school students introduced to science topics, researchers found that students demonstrated far more interest in learning about real world objects (e.g. “How can a gecko walk upside down on the ceiling”) or novel topics (e.g. “Why does a CD have so many colors on the back?), than about ideas presented in the abstract (e.g. “How do we know atoms exist?”).  

So how do we spark curiosity at AltSchool?

“We observe and listen to children. Learning is sparked by conversations. Instead of just answering our students' questions, we prompt students to answer the question themselves,” says Sarah Rothenberg, an AltSchool teacher.

In Sarah’s class, for example, there is a five-year-old student who loves boats. Sarah watches him go to the wooden block area every day to build boats.

One morning she asked him, “Where is the boat going?”

The child responded, “It is going to get food.”

“What kind of food?” Sarah asked.

“Coconuts,” the student replied.

“Hmmm. Where do coconuts come from?” Sarah asked as she pulled out a map of the world.

At this point, other students joined the conversation. The students discussed not only where coconuts originate, but where all the other food they eat comes from. A lesson on geography, agriculture, and transportation emerged that engaged the entire class.

Recognizing this interest in food production, the AltSchool team arranged for the children to visit Good Eggs, a local, sustainable food delivery service located one block away from the Dogpatch classroom. Students learned firsthand about where fruits like jujubes come from. They also learned how a food distribution company operates. They helped fill orders for the day and calculated totals for the orders.

One student asked, “Can we get a delivery from Good Eggs for our classroom snacks?”

Since the trip, the class now orders a weekly Good Eggs food delivery. Sarah projects the Good Eggs site on the classroom wall and the children decide what food to order, identify what region their food comes from, and calculate the total cost of their order.  

“As you can see, it’s a snowball process of letting the child guide you as much as you are guiding them,” Sarah says.


How can you spark curiosity in your child?

Prof. Paul Silvia, author of Exploring the Psychology of Interest, suggests starting a “virtuous cycle” to spark your child’s curiosity.

Here are three ways to start a virtuous cycle with your child:

1. Start with your child’s interests.

The virtuous cycle starts with understanding your child’s interests. In the previous example, a whole lesson emerged from a student’s fascination with boats. Find out what fascinates your child and build from there.

2. Ask curiosity questions.

New information creates a curiosity gap. When children come across new ideas that don’t fit with what they already know, they are motivated to fill in this gap. They ask more questions...which leads to more learning. When Sarah asked about where food comes from, she opened up a whole new field of inquiry for her students. Ask your child curiosity questions that connect their interests to unexplored territory.  

3. Help your child recognize the value of learning. 

When children see the utility of information, they care more about the topic at hand. Sarah helped her students connect global food sources to local food sources. The lesson is continuously reinforced when students see the value of the knowledge they gained in the food they eat every week. Connect new knowledge to everyday applications to increase interest and curiosity.

Let’s nurture curious children together.

Curiosity and wonder are precious components of a child’s education. We believe in doing everything we can to nurture curiosity, not stifle it. When teachers and parents work together to foster curiosity in children, we create a learning environment that helps children be curious for life. 

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