Building on a Mystery
How would you rate your curiosity? How often do you daydream? Is Googling an answer the same thing as satisfying a curiosity? Is curiosity innate in children or a skill that has to be taught and exercised?
What is curiosity?
We don’t have an answer from an evolutionary standpoint, except that it’s likely a side-effect of our pattern-seeking brains. You can probably imagine plenty of anecdotes where an unresolved piece of information leaves you frustrated or pensive: missing the end of an engaging movie, a text that starts with, “I need to talk to you” followed by radio silence, or an all-but-completed puzzle with one piece missing.
Human brains are designed to identify and solve patterns, even inventing them where they don’t exist. Curiosity may be the haranguing inside our minds when we encounter a gap in an informational puzzle. Especially when we know that an answer does exist. When we are unsure that an answer exists, the puzzle becomes a mystery, and engages our imagination. Imagination is possibly the tinkering with that puzzle using the information we do have. Or like dreams are the organization of our recent thoughts in an aesthetic manner, curiosity and imagination could be the aesthetic loading screen of our brains transferring information from short-term to long-term memory.
So where does curiosity come from?
As with all education, curiosity develops best once the undergirding emotional needs are met. Curiosity competes for bandwidth in our brain against fear and anxiety, especially a fear of failure, which we have written about exhaustively in regards to school culture.
A healthy environment for curiosity also requires a wide base of knowledge, which we use to make inter-connections, identify and ask questions about where the gaps in our information exist. But curiosity also requires a bit of modesty – knowing enough to know what we don’t know, but not too much that we feel certain about the information we do have. Skepticism is a friendly pairing to curiosity, and vice versa.
Research has noted that households that ask questions beget curious children. It’s not simply in the act of helping with homework, reading to kids, or answering their myriad of questions, but the process of picking their young brains as well, testing the limits of their knowledge and asking them to begin considering the approach between puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles have a solution; the pleasure is the path. Mysteries may never be solved; the pleasure is in the exploration. Either way, cultivating an excitement for what you want to know first requires cultivating an appreciation for what you don’t know.
Curiosity also comes from an appreciation for effort. Research shows that completing harder tasks is correlated with more engagement in that topic. This is also explained in our article about flow state and the difference between challenge and difficulty.
Is curiosity under threat?
Let’s look at a 3rd grade student in a low-income setting. Last fall was their first time in a classroom since kindergarten. They had limited access to materials in order to keep pace with their virtual learning. Parents were far more likely to be working multiple jobs and/or frontline workers who were unable to work from home. There are fewer books in the home. Even a sixth grader in our class this past semester couldn’t remember a single book he’d read in the past two years. That’s not yet counting the literacy and numeracy skills they missed in the past two years.
At the same time, digital consumption continues to grow. Children average ten hours of screen time per day, with low-income households averaging 1.5 hours higher per day, and growing. Thus, their interactivity with what they are consuming is becoming a one-way highway. There is little downtime or unstructured thinking time necessary to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. At a time when information is immediately available, least reliable, and as a culture we are at the height of being uncomfortable with most forms of uncertainty. Curiosity and truth are at odds with instant gratification and superficial answers.
But again, as we propose in our article about self-efficacy and game addiction, how you interact with those digital components does matter. Researcher Ian Leslie states, “The internet is making smart people smarter and dumb people dumber.”
Googling is a useful tool, but it’s also problematically pragmatic. You don’t have to digest the question to answer it, nor do you have to digest the answer before moving onto another search query or stimulus. You don’t have to make predictions or create mind maps or engage your knowledge base of related information to make connections and deductions. For knowledge to be shifted from our short-term memory banks to long-term, we need that process to digest, settle, and organize information to grow our database and make those important links between neurons, where new bits are stored that eventually overflow and lead to breakthroughs in understanding.
What are the consequences of an incurious culture?
Critics argue that we don’t need long-term memory anymore because any needed information is accessible at our fingertips. That would be fine if everything we do from now on is algorithmic, but that ignores the richer, wider world of narrative thinking, of creative expression, of insight, of novel problem solving, and of emotional interactions where there are no immediate precedents or literature.
It also precludes the ability to discern puzzles from mysteries, which engage our imagination, to distill what we want to know from what we don’t know, to cultivate skepticism, and to have the foundation to question those answers we so readily rely on.
Go back to the third grader who can barely read and has barely read any books. We think imagination is a natural talent in children, but where would it come from? From the practice of visualizing things in their brain that aren’t really there. Where do they get that from? Books, probably. From time to sit and daydream or social pretend with other children in high-input environments with toys, games and outdoor play.
If kids grow up with a greatly reduced ability to conceive of things that aren’t there, where could that lead?
Besides the obvious lack of cultural, political and technological innovation, fewer works of art, fewer events of creative destruction, less insistence on replacing deprecated institutions with more modern institutions.
What about a revolutionary spirit? The willingness not to accept the status quo, to imagine a different fate or future.
Skepticism, critical thought. Reverse engineering what is factual and what is theoretical. Deconstructing the possibility that something that appears true, may not be. Holding in our mind both a conviction and the space for new information. Strong opinions, lightly held. Combatting our own biases; awareness of our lacking.
Empathy, imagining human experiences vastly different than your own, disparate cultures, ideas, attitudes, upbringings, values, backgrounds that you’ve never thought of before.
Mental health. Imagination as the ability to see a way out of depression, heartbreak, low self-esteem; to imagine what healing feels like, imagining a light at the end of the tunnel, conceiving of a different version of yourself, dreaming of who you want to be and the steps it takes to become it. Visualizing different choices than you’ve ever made before.
Optimism. Having no other reason to maintain hope other than you can imagine a happy ending.
So how do we get it back?
One thing to pay attention to, especially in education, is how we reward and punish learning. Rewards can be just as tricky as punishments. Schools in New York and Chicago found no change in test scores when they literally offered to pay students hundreds of dollars if they got A’s on their standardized tests; yet the schools in Dallas that instead paid students for attendance and turning in homework saw marked improvements in test scores; however, Washington schools saw no change in test scores when introducing the same incentives. But did this instill any intrinsic interest in learning versus a view that learning should be compensated?
A study in India found that introducing rewards too high produced lower performance. When assigning a difficult task, offering 5 months salary for completion resulted in worse performance than two weeks salary. The stakes were too high. This is why legendary athletes are scarce: they can consistently cope with those immense pressures.
Punishments can also be tricky as you switch between the realms of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. A daycare in Israel grew tired of parents picking up their children late, and instituted a fine for all late-comers. This new system actually saw the number of late parents increase, theoretically because the school had then re-defined the transgression from an intrinsic moral punishment to an extrinsic economic punishment, which more people were willing to accept.
The battle of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and punishments needs a lot more research. Too much extrinsic reward undermines intrinsic motivation and dampens curiosity. Not enough can neglect a need for feedback, validation and incentives for students without a developed internal drive.
Exploration and self-directed learning could go a long way. Goal-driven versus experience-driven tasks often find that students perform better over the short-term when given a defined objective, but perform better over a longer-period of time and show a greater personal interest in the subject when they are allowed to explore it without objectives attached.
Meta Practice is also a new theory in neuropsychology that can be applicable. It is the idea of practicing how we practice. When it comes to developing a skill or habit, our brains have a gatekeeper that at times blocks messages being sent from our brain if it relates to an activity we associate with unpleasant feelings. This can relate to dieting, exercise, or learning a difficult subject. It also explains why reducing sugar or fatty intake and breaking addictions can be so hard: for as long we perceive the act itself, and not the aftermath, as pleasurable, our brain will regard it with positive momentum, no matter how regrettable or ill we feel after the act.
Meta Practice is the idea of being more present with how we train that skill or habit that we are trying to develop or break. In the case of learning, creating a warm-up routine, a thorough but casual debriefing, and mixing in movement or mindfulness breaks can punctuate feelings of pleasure into the learning process. Autonomy and self-exploration also have higher rates of pleasure associated with them. As does carving out time for daydreaming, unstructured thought, letting ourselves dwell in the discomfort of admitting, “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that,” and resisting the instinct to convince ourselves of an answer because it's easier than starting down a mystery.
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