Curiosity is a drive to know more (Berlyne, 1954). In evolutionary terms, it's obviously adaptive for humans to invest energy to explore a new environment, creature or person, that could be lead to a new home, food, or procreation.
In science, difficult ideas take a lot of mental energy to figure out. Clearly then we want students to become curious so that they will invest their energy in the process of understanding. If they’re not curious, they’re more likely to go through the motions - the all too common response of memorising what they think they have to know for the exam.
And it’s not just theory either. There is actually evidence that curiosity does translate into better learning. In a review of research, von Stumm et al (2011) concluded that curiosity or what they call ‘a hungry mind’ is a core determinant of academic achievement, perhaps equally important as the two main pillars - intelligence and effort. If that’s true, surely creating curiosity is worth our investment as teachers. But how?
"Think of curiosity as an investment of mental energy"
IT'S NOT KITCHEN SCIENCE
First let’s exclude things that don’t work. Let's say we're teaching energy transfer. In a typical scheme, you often get suggestions like this - ask students about an example they’ve seen.
Will this create curiosity? "Introduce energy stores to students giving examples of each type. Students suggest another example of each type by trying to use examples in the room."
Or in chemistry to remind students they’ve seen a chemical in their kitchen. It seems intuitive to link the topic to something that’s familiar to students, and indeed the researchers behind the notion of ‘Science Capital’ believe that kitchen sink examples are the way to make science more accessible to students who have little scientific experience.
But this is not the same thing as creating curiosity. Yes, my non-stick frying pan is made of teflon, but do I really want to find out what its structure is?
Since one of our goals is to train students to think and act like scientists, I think we should be mimicking the conditions that make scientists wonder about the natural want and want to find answers. There are broadly 3 ways or ‘hooks’ to do this
- Discrepant event
DISCREPANT EVENT HOOK
A discrepant event is something students observe, i.e. a phenomenon which is, unlike kitchen science, is new and expected. The point is to cause students to experience surprise and be something with enough interest to make students ask themselves ‘why did that happen?’
Such events open up a ‘curiosity’ gap, between what students know and what they need to know to understand the event. To be useful for science teaching, the curiosity gap has to be an appropriate size - not too small that students can easily find the answer, and not too big that the concept that will explain the event is beyond students comprehension, given appropriate teacher simplification. Discrepant events for many concepts have been published (e.g. O’Brien, 2010).
Let’s say we’re teaching energy transfer, and looking for a discrepant event hook. One possibility is the ‘gauss gun’. Watch this video of a 1-stage gauss gun and then a 4-stage gun, and notice your surprise at the speed the ball moves.
A narrative or story is basically a series of logically connected events driven by the hopes, fears and struggles of the main character. Stories are how we structure the events in our lives and give them meaning. As we learn from a very young age to think in terms of stories (Egan 1997), it’s no surprise to discover that they make ideas more accessible, easier to and more interesting.
There are two quite different ways to use narrative relevant in science teaching. The first is to put a concept into the context of a real scientific story. The story could be how a scientist, or many scientists, made the discovery. Or it could be about how they used science to solve a problem. This can arouse students’ human interest and help them become involved in the scientific problem and its resolution through scientific explanation.
The second way is to structure students’ learning as a story or mission, making them the main character who attempts to solve some mystery by explaining it with a scientific concept. This adds purpose to the learning, and makes the experience of doing science more like that of a real scientist.
Let’s say we’re teaching about heat and temperature, and looking for a narrative hook. One possibility, that we used in our Proper Science KS3 unit on heat & temperature, is the a forensic science case. The students are set a mission to find out whether a boy is guilty of murdering his girlfriend.
A dilemma means being faced with a difficult choice between alternatives. In the real world presents, our lives are increasingly filled with science-related choices that are far from obvious - what to eat and drink, what products to buy, what they will recycle or do to reduce their carbon footprint. If the dilemma relates to students’ interests or concerns, then they will want to come to a more informed opinion, and thus gain knowledge of the science - ideally through an authentic process to allow them to learn scientific enquiry (working scientifically) skills.
Beyond personal decisions, we can open a whole range of societal decisions about energy, transport, health, genetics, environment and space, if we put students in a more activist role where they could campaign for changes in policy, or even, ask them to imagine they are policymakers.
Let’s say we are teaching the about the impact of diet on disease, we could interest students in a topic question that the government is considering, like “should we tax all sugary foods and drinks?”
MAINTAIN CURIOSITY WITH 7E
Using hooks to create curiosity is only half the battle. If we follow the stimulus by lecturing students on the concept, their mental energy will quickly dissipate.
How to maintain curiosity? I’m indebted to famous educator Howard Gardner for once challenging me in a conversation with the question: ‘how do you keep them motivated enough to grapple with the difficult stuff?’ I didn’t have the answer at the time, but later realised that one solution might be to follow the arc of a scientific inquiry. In other words proceeding from an initial state of wonder, all the way to solving the mystery using the learned concept.
I believe this arc can be translated for the classroom as a set of 7 steps - the 7Es.
It’s the first three steps, Engage, Enable and Explore which are critical for maintaining curiosity after the initial hook. One function of Engage is to lead students towards a driving question which becomes their goal for the lesson - as opposed to typical lesson goals which they don’t invest in.
In the example of the Gauss Gun, a discrepant event hook, once you’ve shown students the demonstration, they are likely to form the driving question ‘why did the end ball move so fast?’ with little prompting. The Enable step provides them with basic knowledge about energy stores, which means the the Explore step can focus in on questions to ‘uncover’ the concept that will ultimately explain the discrepant event. For instance: ‘Can energy move from one store or object to another?’
In the example of the forensic science case, the Engage step leads students from the initial story of the murder to the driving question ‘Was the boyfriend at home when the girl died (he claimed to be out)?’. This propels students to the Enable where they learn that energy moves from hotter to cooler objects. Then Explore focusses the question about time of death to a scientific investigation into how mass and temperature difference affect the rate at which objects cool.
TRY IT OUT!
You can use some ready made examples of using hooks and the 7E steps by downloading the sample material for our Proper Science KS3 course.
Berlyne, D. E. (1954). A theory of human curiosity. British Journal of Psychology , 45(3), 180–191.
Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. University of Chicago Press.
O’Brien, T. (2010). Brain-powered Science: Teaching and Learning with Discrepant Events. NSTA Press.
von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity is the third pillar of academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 6(6), 574–588.