Deirdre Moore | August 2017

The Science Behind Curiosity

Teachers often teach by instinct.  They are also action researchers.  They try something, they see how the kids respond and they either do it again or don’t depending on how the students react.  One thing teachers know is that if the curiosity of students can be raised, the students are more likely to engage in the learning and retain the learning.  If they can generate the questions and find the answers themselves, the learning will be more authentic and is more likely to be more permanent.

Back in February I wrote about two arts-based strategies that can be leveraged to pique the curiosity of students before beginning a new unit of study.  I wrote about using images and Visual Thinking Strategies in conjunction with tableau to have students start to investigate a topic and in turn, generate some wonderings.  If they had not been curious about a topic before, by giving them some carefully selected images and allowing them to draw conclusions, generate questions and ultimately physically recreate the image, a teacher can raise the level of curiosity of most if not all students, especially those who seem to be naturally curious.  Those students help generate an atmosphere of excitement around the learning and engage all students in a process that is likely to get everyone wondering about something.

But why?

Why is raising the curiosity of students sound teaching practice?  Thanks to brain research, we now have some answers.  A tweet led me down the internet rabbit hole to an article written by NPR journalist Maanvi Singh  who referenced a study done by a few scientists, one of whom was Charan Ranganath.  According to Ranganath, there is little research that has been done on the topic of curiosity but here are some of the highlights of the study according to the abstract published in the science journal Neuron on October 2, 2014.

Dopamine is that chemical released in the brain that makes us feel good.  It’s part of our reward system and curiosity is linked to that system.  Ranganath was quoted as saying that dopamine also seems to strengthen the connection between cells and enhance learning.  When the participants were looking at a question and answer in which they were interested not only did the pleasure center light up in the MRI but the hippocampus did as well – an area of the brain related to memory.

What does that mean?

That means we are rewarded when we are curious and we will more likely retain that information.  However, and this is where it gets REALLY good, participants remembered information about things that did not interest them when their brains were in that heightened state of awareness.  What they don’t know is how long that effect lasts.  Still, as educators, knowing that if we can link information that students need to know with things that make them curious or that interest them, chances are the students will better retain that information.

Now most of you are probably thinking, “I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me that.”  As I said, educators are action researchers and figure things like that out on their own.  But it does help to make a compelling case for arts integration if one needs to be made.  Students enjoy making art.  It is engaging and rewarding.  When students have dopamine flooding their system because they are doing something that interests them, they will retain other information that is less intrinsically motivating to them.

And that is just one reason we integrate art with other subjects.  If a student is motivated by science but not art, the science may actually help them appreciate art.  And conversely, if a student is motivated by art, they may actually enjoy and retain the science content because it is integrated with the art.  So there is just one more thing you can add to your rationale for using arts integration (just in case you needed it).

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.