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Developing curiosity using our environment

In this article, Dr Diane Hamilton explores the last factor of the four main inhibitors of curiosity - our environment.

When considering curiosity, our environment includes the hopes, dreams, guidance, expectations, opinions, and instructions given to us throughout our lives.

An image showing the key environmental impacts on curiosity Click to expand

All are powerful in shaping who we are and who we become. Our indoctrination begins with our parents and continues with our teachers, coaches, ministers, college professors, politicians, bosses, colleagues, next-door neighbours, and all the other influential figures in our lives.

Their messages, positive or negative, shape our own beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours. They also shape our curiosity.

We’re either being encouraged or discouraged in our curiosity. We’re being influenced as to what we should be curious about, as well as what to accept as givens.

Where does curiosity begin?

This shaping begins with our parents.

As children, we want to know everything! From, why do birds have feathers on their faces, to how are horses different from mules, our endless questions are all over the map. Every response to those questions either encourages or suppresses our curiosity.

The nonstop questions of a four-year-old can take their toll on an overworked, exasperated parent. Unfortunately, “just because” isn’t an answer that engenders a child’s curiosity.

Kids are born scientists

As astronomer and author Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, “Kids are born scientists. They are curious about everything around them. And a parent can either respond ‘Let’s find out’ or ‘Stop asking so many questions!’” [1]

Input continues with our teachers and education system.

Researchers and behavioural scientists have long decried that our education system places more emphasis on maintaining order and teaching answers than it does encourage questions or curiosity.

Teachers are given curricula and lesson plans to administer. Standardised tests measure students’ proficiency as well as teachers’ effectiveness. Rarely, if ever, are teachers measured on how much curiosity they instilled in their students.

Our school environment

Developmental psychologists Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes [2] conducted research and found that while kindergarten-age children asked an average of twenty-seven questions an hour at home, that number plummeted to only about three when they were at school.

Some of this drop-off, the authors concluded, is unavoidable. Kids at school don’t have the opportunity to ask questions endlessly as they might at home. However, this could be offset somewhat if the school environment would encourage children to be more curious.

The desire to learn

Many are convinced that curiosity is drastically underappreciated in our educational institutions. Susan Engel, the author of The Hungry Mind [3], said that amidst the country’s standardised testing mania, schools are missing what most matters about learning, the desire to learn in the first place.

From her studies, teachers rarely encourage curiosity in the classroom, even though that’s the one factor that can most influence learning.

The natural curiosity of children

Leslie Crawford, senior editor at Great Schools [4], described behaviours of parents and teachers that can have a subtle but lasting effect on a child’s curiosity.

She mentioned behaviours such as overreacting to a child’s mess, choosing what a child should study, over-scheduling a child’s time, being overly concerned with safety, and having all the answers. Each of these behaviours can suppress natural curiosity in children.

The author asserted that the messy but creative art of slime-making, so popular among children, can engender the scientists, engineers, and inventors of the future. She admonished, let them make messes!

Beneficial environmental influences

Beneficial environmental influences such as the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Program and the Curiosity Cube are attempting to stimulate and sustain the innate curiosity of children.

The program encourages a curriculum in schools to improve competitiveness in the science and technology fields. The Curiosity Cube is a renovated shipping container turned into a travelling learning laboratory.

Sponsored by the Millipore organization, the Curiosity Cube encourages students to explore subjects in the areas of science, technology, and engineering.

The shaping of our curiosity is never-ending

In conclusion, the shaping and coaching process of our environment continues from our childhoods well into our adult lives and, in reality, is never-ending.

From our parents, teachers, and pastors to our bosses and even media advertising, the messaging is nonstop. It’s all in pursuit of our mindshare and either encourage or represses our curiosity.

In a world dominated by policies, procedures, rules, and guidelines, traits such as creativity and innovation are the domain of the curious and the courageous.

References

1. A quote by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Goodreads.com. [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/605216-kids-are-never-the-problem-they-are-born-scientists-the

2. Tizard B, Hughes M. Young Children Learning: Talking and Thinking at Home and at School. Fontana Press; 1986.

3. Engel S. The hungry mind. Harvard University Press; 2015.

4. Leslie Crawford’s Profile | Typepad [Internet]. Profile.typepad.com. 2014 [cited 11 September 2020]. Available from: https://profile.typepad.com/lcrawford

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