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Creating curiosity

Genuine learning is impossible without curiosity.” – Naval Ravikant


For Blog 73, we are tackling a thorny issue around learning. Students, teacher and parents are constantly perplexed with the question ‘how can we spark or develop curiosity?’. How can we set that fire alight so that a student not only has a spark of interest but genuinely wants to learn.


Personally, I rarely read about something I am not interested in. There are two reasons, i) my lack of interest shows that my mind thinks this is irrelevant ii) I am unlikely to have the curiosity or have the focus or intensity that would be required to get much out of reading it. For that reason I am willing to put down books that don’t meet the bar.


I have not found a good model of curiosity through my research. I therefore present to you my own findings with humility knowing that it will develop through feedback from the learned people that read this.




What is curiosity?


Very simply curiosity is the yearning you have to learn something. Its the statement 'I want to know this'. Young children are some of the most curious people we will ever meet. Their eyes see wonder where we see normality. They are trying to work out the way of the world. Evolution has made us curious but selectively so.




Stimulation is fuel for learning. Stimulation requires curiosity, focus and intensity. Today we will be focusing on curiosity and next week will look into focus and intensity.


The role of curiosity


Curiosity revs up our brain and primes us for taking in knowledge. Specifically it creates the release of dopamine which makes us receptive. It is the spark to take that first step to understand and dig. It helps us make progress - fight off distraction and procrastination. Curiosity also helps us keep going when the initial excitement wanes and the reality of the work required dawns on us.


We are not curious about everything. Everyday trivial things, or seemingly unachievable things that are complex or remote do not engage us. Curiosity is that place where our mind becomes open.


To learn, we need knowledge to be integrated into our long-term memory. To do this we need an engaged brain. An engaged brain is a busy place! Many neurons are firing resulting in a lot of electrical activity. Electrical activity makes things memorable as your brain can try and reproduce that electrical pattern and recall it. Without curiosity, you will not be able to create that learning.



Examples of curiosity


One film and one audiobook recently highlight curiosity in action.


1) "Oppenheimer" is a film about scientists coming together to create the world’s first atomic bomb. It was thought that Germany or the Soviet Union might get there first. The stakes were enormously high. This backdrop led to rapid and intense stimulation and progress.



2) "The man who solved the market" was around Renaissance Technologies, the world’s most successful hedge fund relying on quantitative methods. A number of very successful Mathematics academics who wanted to both make money and use their smarts to crack some patterns in the market. Their curiosity was both the practical application of their smarts and the rewards they would achieve as a result of it.


These disparate examples show that there are a number of drivers of curiosity. Some examples:


  1. You see yourself as being able to go from novice to competent (i.e. have a growth mindset)

  2. The stakes are high. Obtain great rewards or avoid a bad outcome.

  3. Learning this is critical to your future plans

  4. You have suffered a setback and wish to overcome the challenge

  5. Not knowing is painful or embarrassing

  6. It is fun and learning feels effortless

  7. You have been inspired to learn by someone - a teacher or other role model

People have quite personal reasons to be curious, but if we wish to encourage learning how can we create a curious environment?


How do we nurture curiosity?


As a student, teacher or parent how can we create a curious atmosphere? Some reflections below:

  1. Start with why: Why is this relevant to the world? Why is it relevant to me? What will this help me do that I could not do before? What gaps in my knowledge does it fill?

  2. Growth mindset. Encourage the idea that competence is a result of effort not talent. Respect for each other and high expectations creates space growth, avoiding pigeon-holing people as e.g. 'bad at maths'.

  3. Learning can be framed as a constant activity rather than something we associate with "work". It is quite easy to reframe much of what we do as learning. When you are practicing free kicks, cooking or chatting to a friend, you are learning.

  4. Make sure errors/mistakes are considered a learning opportunity that should highlight an area of learning need rather than denote failure. Students often try and steer clear of feeling a failure.

  5. Good questions: Asking or having to answer good questions solidify learning. Knowing you might be asked to explain yourself and you can have your curiosity satisfied helps you engage with the material.

  6. Explain the link between learning and confidence: Knowing you have expanded your knowledge will motivate you and make you more confident. Confidence will help you attack the next (possibly bigger) problems.

  7. Explain how more opportunities professionally (and personally) will be available to you, the more you know. The more opportunities you have the greater the chance you have of improving your life.

  8. Whilst learning is not always fun, the process can be fun. How can it be gamified and set at a level which is a fun challenge?


So what?

Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:


1) Curiosity is the innate drive to learn and explore, most vividly observed in young children; it's the engine that powers genuine learning by priming our brain to absorb knowledge and making information memorable.


2) Curiosity is the foundation for engagement in learning, keeping distractions at bay, and propelling you through challenges. This is evident in scenarios such as the race to build the first atomic bomb or the pursuits of hedge funds like Renaissance Technologies.


3) Cultivating curiosity involves fostering a growth mindset, reframing learning as a continuous, enjoyable process, leveraging mistakes as learning opportunities, promoting questioning, and underscoring the broader benefits of knowledge in life and career opportunities.


Thank you for joining. Next blog in the learning series - 'Learning with intensity'. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders (hartejsingh.com)


Other blogs in the learning series:

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