Cultivating Curiosity

  • On 2017-04-04
  • curiosity, narrative

Is your school’s culture one in which curiosity and learning from mistakes thrives?

This article is Part III of the Transforming the School Narrative series. In Part I we explored the default narrative we found across a range of schools in conversations we had with teachers and leaders. Hattie in recent times has been pointing to this too and suggested a reboot of schools. We suggested that the reboot could begin with transforming the narrative for leadership within a school.

In Part II we looked at aspects of Daniel Goleman’s around Emotional and Social Intelligence. The intent was for look deeper into what would leadership teams need to explore and manage to create a narrative within the school that empowers learning and leadership. Goleman pointed to the importance of various leadership styles inherent to creating an environment for optimal performance for teachers and students.

In this article we will explore the question – how does student curiosity influence learning and school structures within a school?



“Curiosity has been hailed as the major impetus behind cognitive development, education, and scientific discovery (Loewenstein, 1994). It is the drive that brings learners to knowledge. Curiosity is about being aware and open, checking things out, experimenting, and interacting within one’s surroundings. In a classroom grounded in curiosity, teachers have the unique opportunity of being able to mine students’ deepest held wonder, making their attention natural and effortless, and allowing them to fully engage. Creating the conditions for curiosity in the classroom will allow us to achieve more authentic motivation from both teachers and students, leading to deeper learning.”

Wendy L. Ostroff

Wendy Ostroff in her recent ASCD book, Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms, suggested that curiosity may be critical to student (and teacher) success in school. In her introduction she pointed to research that showed:

  • Curiosity jump-starts and sustains intrinsic motivation, allowing deep learning to happen with ease
  • Curiosity releases dopamine, which not only brings pleasure but also improves observation and memory
  • Curious people exhibit enhanced cognitive skills
  • Students’ and teachers’ curiosity can be combined to co-create a curiosity classroom.

If curiosity has so many benefits to learning then you would think that it would be part of every school environment – wouldn’t it?


Barriers to encouraging curiosity

We asked this of teachers at a number of primary schools and many indicted that there were many barriers to encouraging and supporting curiosity. We also encouraged them to come up with potential solutions or actions to enable curiosity to thrive in their classrooms.

Challenges –  what gets in the way of curiosity Potential Solutions and Actions
  • The lack of clear knowledge of mandatory reporting and what is actually required by the State Education Department. This includes a lack of understanding of curriculum content descriptors, achievement standards, and the importance and weighting of the curriculum
  • This leads to teachers feeling the curriculum is crowded and teachers focusing on covering curriculum and assessing everything
  • Timetable limitations
  • Curriculum being put into silos which means a focus on specific content rather than having a more authentic integrated learning experience
  • Poor teacher pedagogy which limits curiosity (some teachers only doing work sheets)
  • Focus on content and not thinking and meta-cognition
  • Assessment that focuses on the product only and doesn’t look at the process and thinking
  • Lack of parental understanding of the latest educational research (and believing their children should focus on content)
  • Dated perceptions about what it means to be successful at school
  • Lack of consistent planning time for teachers to work together, create shared common understandings, and develop their capacity
  • Focus on year level learning and not progress of individuals (i.e. lack of a variety of challenge levels for the wide range of student learning capacity in the class)
  • Fear about the potential loss of control if had a curious class
  • Development for teachers – grow their toolbox of strategies and learning activities that facilitate curiosity
  • Support students / staff / parents to feel safe with this new approach
  • Involve and support parents by educating them:
    • How they can create shared values between home and school
    • How they can best support their children’s learning
    • Understand the changing process we are going through with learners
    • About reporting and what success looks like at school
  • Develop different ways of assessing? Common assessment tasks? Meaningful / valid / not too time consuming
  • Make meaningful connections (interdisciplinary) – between different curriculum areas – streamlining content
  • Revise and improve the school reports to be more aligned with not just content but the whole child and progress (not achievement)
  • Revise timetable, make it more flexible and allow for deeper learning
  • More time for teachers to work together, reflect and develop learning and their professional capacity
  • Improve documentation of learning and teaching so can grow shared thinking, strategies, activities, etc
  • Exploring where curiosity is developed well – other schools / other classrooms and collaborate and share ideas


Encouraging a Culture of Curiosity and Learning

It was interesting to see that the teachers addressed not only their own personal pedagogical and planning development but systemic issues including reporting, parental perceptions, timetables and professional learning. Whilst writers and researchers such as Wendy Ostroff and Kath Murdoch address the pedagogical aspects of developing a culture of curiosity and inquiry it is critical for school leaders to resolve the systemic issues in partnership with teachers. If the systemic issues are not addressed then the learning that occurs within a school will never reach its potential. It is only through aligning the school systems, processes and culture to a powerful school vision that would result in learning and leadership for all.


Some Questions for you to think about

  • What are the barriers in your school to fostering a climate of curiosity and learning from mistakes?
  • In what ways must teachers take risks in order to foster curiosity?
  • In what ways can a classroom be structured so that the teachers are curious and learning themselves?
  • In what ways the school systems and processes be redesigned so that the a culture of curiosity thrives?


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