Getting Curious about Curiosity

Carla Ford

Curious Student 960 x 450

Last weekend, I got to be curious. I went to a conference and listened to a 45-minute talk on bio-metrics, an area I knew nothing about. It was fascinating. I came home and bombarded my husband with a stream of ‘Did you know…’ as I attempted to regurgitate what I had learned (luckily for you, the blog word count prohibits me from doing the same to you, but believe me, if I could, I would!). It felt good to exercise curiosity in this way, although curiosity is far more complex and nuanced than a simple ‘did you know…’

What you might already know…

Curiosity, ‘the recognition, pursuit, and desire to explore novel, uncertain, complex and ambiguous events’ (Kashdan et al., 2018) is one of the 24 VIA-Character Strengths within the virtue of Wisdom. It is one of the five character strengths linked with life-satisfaction and is universally valued, present in each and every one of us. Curiosity has a shadow-side and can by overused (nosiness) or under used (disinterest), and it’s crucial for our survival and growth. Curious people ask unprompted questions, read deeply, investigate how people think, feel and behave, examine and manipulate interesting images and objects, take risks to acquire new experiences, and persist with challenging tasks (see Kashdan et al., 2018).

What I didn’t know… (and you might not either)

Curiosity is often viewed as a fairly linear concept; individuals sit on a continuum somewhere between curious and not-curious. However, Todd Kashdan (a leading researcher in the area of curiosity) and colleagues have identified five different dimensions within curiosity (Kashdan et al., 2018). As you read on, I invite you to be curious and see which dimensions resonate with you…

1)   Joyous Exploration. This is what most people mean when they think about curiosity. Joyous Exploration is an intrinsically pleasurable experience, with curiosity itself being the reward (Kashdan & Silvia, 2009). Those with high levels of joyous exploration love seeking out new knowledge and information and are fascinated by the world around them. Picture a small child asking ‘why?’, or someone who enjoys pulling apart contraptions just to see how they work.

2)   Deprivation Sensitivity (or ‘I need to know’ curiosity). This differs from Joyous Exploration in that is more about the intrinsic desire to resolve ambiguity and uncertainty (Loewenstein, 1994). A gap in our knowledge can be uncomfortable and potentially anxiety producing, which drives a desire to reduce the knowledge deficit. The emotional overtone is more anxiety and tension than joy, meaning we get curious to stop the discomfort. Do you know someone who just has to Google the answer to a question? This could be their style of curiosity.

3)   Stress Tolerance (or ‘I can sit with the discomfort’ curiosity). Whenever we are faced with complex, new or uncertain experiences, there comes a certain level of stress and negative emotion. This perceived ability to navigate and embrace the potential stress inherent in exploring the new and mysterious is a critical part of being a curious person (Silvia, 2008) and shows the strongest correlation with every dimension of wellbeing (Kashdan et al. 2018).

4)   Thrill Seeking. This dimension of curiosity is not concerned with learning or growing but is about seeking out pleasure and adventure in new and varied ways, especially if it involves significant risks (Zuckermann, 1979, 1994). This dimension seeks to amplify stress, rather than reduce it (Kashdan et al., 2018). Think of teenagers who insist on trying new things just for the fun of doing something different.

5)   Social Curiosity. Interpersonal relationships are foundational to our human existence and Kashdan’s team believe that this aspect of curiosity warrants a dimension of its own. Social curiosity is concerned with how other people think and behave and information can be gathered overtly (observations and questioning) or covertly (listening into conversations/eavesdropping or gathering second-hand information). Those who love to gossip may score highly on social curiosity.

Having a deeper understanding of curiosity can really help in understanding the students in your class, so I invite you to consider the following strategies:

Tips to cultivate curiosity in the classroom

1.   Create a safe space – students are more likely to take academic risks with their learning and ask questions if they feel safe and supported. Encourage participation and ‘having a go’, over being ‘right’. Students with high social curiosity will be interested in knowing what others think, so managing the negative responses of others is also important.

2.   Notice and normalise feelings of discomfort and anxiety. Those high on thrill-seeking may love the adrenalin rush, but those with low stress tolerance will avoid curiosity like the plague. Mindfulness and self-compassion practices may help students notice those feelings and understand that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Appropriately share and model working through your own discomforts.

3.   Create opportunities for inquiry-based collaboration. Collaborative learning tasks that are challenging and well-scaffolded, and utilise higher-order questioning, are an effective way to develop curiosity (Hopkins, Craig & Knight, 2015).

4.   Adopt a coaching style. Coaching questions are designed to engender curiosity. For example, try asking rather than telling (‘what could you do to find the answer?’), and using open-ended questions (‘how do you feel about your report?’). It may take longer and require more effort in the short-term, but is a great way to develop life-long learners.

5.   Be curious yourself. Share your metacognitive thinking as you read books, analyse ideas or reflect on current affairs. Modelling the different dimensions of curiosity not only allows you to be a co-learner, it may also enhance your wellbeing. A win-win for everyone.

References:

Hopkins, D., Craig, W., & Knight, O. (2015). Curiosity and powerful learning. Sydney: McREL Australia.

Kashdan, T. B., & Silvia, P. J. (2009). Curiosity and interest: The benefits of thriving on novelty and challenge. Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, 2, 367–374.

Kashdan, T. B., Stiksma, M. C., Disabato, D. J., McKnight, P. E., Bekier, J., Kaji, J., & Lazarus, R. (2018). The five-dimensional curiosity scale: Capturing the bandwidth of curiosity and identifying four unique subgroups of curious people. Journal of Research in Personality73, 130-149.

Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 75–98.

Silvia, P. J. (2008). Appraisal components and emotion traits: Examining the appraisal basis of trait curiosity. Cognition and Emotion, 22, 94–113.

Zuckerman, M. (1979). Sensation seeking beyond the optimal level of arousal. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Zuckerman, M. (1994). Behavioral expressions and biosocial bases of sensation seeking. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Carla Ford


Carla Ford is a Trainer and Content Developer with the Institute of Positive Education. She has designed and developed curriculum and training programs in Australia and the UK, and is passionate about creating light-bulb moments of understanding. She is a qualified teacher and adult-educator, and holds a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology.