Mar 13, 2012 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D.

curiosity in learning

Good grades and high achievement test scores are very real portals to success in life. Given the weight society grants such measures in evaluating individuals for everything from college to graduate school to entrance into the professional world, we cannot ignore the essential role of these traditional measures of success.

But that’s tradition; does the science support the idea that intellect and academic mastery ensure later success? What are the true determinants of triumph in school and life? Traditionally, intelligence and effort have been the two traits identified as the golden keys to future achievement. Still, there is a third variable that has long gone under-analyzed; in their 2011 paper, Von Strumm, Hell and Chamorro-Premuzic posit that yet another “pillar” of the mind must be taken into consideration: curiosity.

Back in 1963, Fiske and Butler stated that ability test scores measure what a person can do at a given time, whereas personality scales “provide a measure of what a person is most likely to do” in the future. (Fiske and Butler, pp. 258-259)  This difference is fascinating, and one which we all too often fail to differentiate when working with and evaluating our students.

In their research, Von Strumm, Hell and Chamorror-Premuzic reviewed and analyzed multiple studies that investigated the relationships between academic performance and intelligence, as well as those between academic performance and personality traits such as curiosity. They found, among other results, that the combined effects of curiosity and effort equaled the impact of intellect on academic performance.In other words, their analysis played out scientifically what Dewey suggested back in 1910: “The curious mind [is] constantly alert and exploring [and] seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. . . . Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of acquisition of primary facts…” (Dewey, 1910, p. 31)

For educators, the implications of such conclusions represent a refreshing perspective on both how we perceive our students’ abilities and how we imagine and implement strategies to nurture their success. All too often, we fall into the trap of seeing our students and evaluating their performance in terms of their intellectual abilities.

But what if we could see them just as well for their possibilities? What if we could focus our gaze ahead and perceive their potential in those areas of knowledge that they were most hungry to pursue?

Because of brain plasticity research, we know that through finding strong existing neural pathways and thought patterns, we can connect them to the creation of new thought patterns; we can use existing strengths to cultivate new ones. For example, a child might not have excellent math skills, but a deep curiosity for space and the solar system. If we can use that passion for outer space to introduce mathematical concepts, the child is more likely to successfully learn those essential skills.

With this knowledge on our side, if we can tap into and cultivate our students’ curiosity, we can help them turn their immediate educational obstacles into opportunities, as well as help them to establish habits of mind that will serve them long into their futures after that last exam has come to a close.

For further reading: Von Stumm, Sophie. Hell, Benedikt. Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science 6(6) 574–588.

Related Reading:

6 Steps to Help Students Ask Better Questions

Using the Power of Optimal Timing to Improve the Brain’s Ability to Learn