How can schools keep students engaged as they grow from elementary school to middle school to high school? According to the Gallup Student Engagement survey 76% of students are engaged in elementary school as opposed to a meager 44% in high school. The answer to this engagement challenge may just be in a trait demonstrated by so many elementary students: curiosity.
Research shows that curiosity invites exploration and exploration is self-rewarding. By cultivating curiosity in elementary school and beyond schools can actively increase intrinsic motivation and proactively develop a mindset in students that helps prevent engagement drop off.
What is curiosity? Even as early as the 1960s, developmental psychologists noted the role of curiosity in a child’s learning and this much-cited definition is still valid: "...curiosity is demonstrated by an elementary school child when he: (1) reacts positively to new, strange, incongruous, or mysterious elements in his environment by moving toward them, by exploring, or by manipulating them, (2) exhibits a need or a desire to know more about himself and/or his environment, (3) scans his surroundings seeking new experiences, and (4) persists in examining and exploring stimuli in order to know more about them."
What does that look like in a classroom?
He/she reacts positively to new, strange, incongruous, or mysterious elements in his/her environment by moving toward them, by exploring, or by manipulating them.
Fiona is a first grader with a handful of friends she loves to play with at recess. This week, she sees a new student she doesn’t recognize. She’s curious, and goes over to her to say “hello.” She asks her many questions and soon has a new friend, Julia, who she knows likes to collect stuffed animals just like she does. Because of Fiona’s curiosity, Julia doesn’t have to spend her first day of recess alone.
He/she exhibits a need or a desire to know more about himself/herself and/or his/her environment.
Carlton is in fifth grade and is trying to figure out what middle school will best suit him since his district offers magnet options. His mother asks his counselor, Mrs. Kendrick what Carlton can do to learn more about himself so they can make a good decision together. Mrs. Kendrick suggests they try an interest inventory. Because Carlton wants to learn more about himself to make this decision, he dives into the assessment and when it is done can’t stop talking about his strengths. When Carlton and his mother next meets with Mrs. Kendrick, Carlton shares he he’s found a few careers he likes in the STEM cluster. Mrs. Kendrick is then able to help Carlton find a magnet school that will help him gain skills for that cluster.
He/she scans his surroundings seeking new experiences.
T.J. is a second grader and an eager learner. When he finishes an activity, like reading a book, he is the first student to ask what he can do next. When his teacher, Mr. Gonzalez, tells him he can pick an enrichment activity of his choice, he searches through the files until he finds something that interests him. Mr. Gonzalez doesn’t often see T.J. shrug and stay at his seat like he doesn’t know what to do next. He’s always looking for the next learning activity.
He/she persists in examining and exploring stimuli in order to know more about them.
Tania is a third grade student who has discovered she loves science and making. She loves to know how things work and is constantly tinkering with things, like machines. She once helped Mrs. Moreno fix her electric pencil sharpener. Currently, Tania is trying to prototype different pinebox derby racers for a Science Fair entry on velocity. She studied the shapes of aerodynamic vehicles using books in the school’s library and the internet. Tania is making several different versions using different shapes. She’s already hypothesized which will be the fastest and now has to test it out to see if she is right.
Do you want to figure out how to cultivate these behaviors with your students? For a complete look at how curiosity helps students supports students in college and career readiness and to learn how you can cultivate curiosity with your students, view the webinar, When I Grow Up: Strategies for Nurturing Curiosity in Elementary Students.
Day, H. I. (1982). Curiosity and the interested explorer. NSPI Journal, May, 19-22.
Maw, W.H, & Maw, E.W. (1964). An exploratory investigation into the measurement of curiosity in elementary school children. Cooperative Research Project, 801, University of Delaware.