Over-testing kids is not the answer: Here's how we really spark curiosity

Too often we squelch curiosity in favor of tests, compliance and discipline. Education doesn't have to be that way

Published March 14, 2015 2:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jose F. Moreno)
(AP/Jose F. Moreno)


The Complexity of Adult Responses

All too often, in a political landscape where good teachers are stars and heroes, and bad teachers are villains ("Waiting for Superman" is one vivid example of the zeitgeist), we tend to think that nice teachers encourage curiosity, and the mean, derelict ones do not. However, the range of adult responses when a child is in the presence of intriguing or alluring objects cannot be boiled down to friendly or unfriendly.

Tessa van Schijndel and her colleagues (2010) brought preschool children to an interactive science museum to participate in two different exhibits, one involving rolling cylinders down a ramp, and the other in which the child sits on a chair that spins, holding blocks of varying weights to find out what factors influence the speed of the spin. As children went through these two exhibits, a coach used one of three styles to interact with them: a minimal but encouraging response; a kind of scaffolding in which the coach elaborated what the child did or said; and an explanatory style in which the coach offered the child information about the inner workings of the experience (why the cylinders rolled at different rates, and why the weight of the block interacts with where the child held her arms while spinning).

How actively each child explored the exhibit depended on what the coach said to her. Children explored the rolling cylinder exhibit much more thoroughly when the coach simply smiled and nodded, and said little. The children who heard explanations from the coaches were the least likely to try out different things with the cylinders. A somewhat different picture emerged when it came to the spinning-chair exhibit. Children investigated the blocks and their own gestures (holding their arms close to the torso, or spreading them out like wings) with more gusto when the coach scaffolded the child’s behavior, making small suggestions for further experimentation or otherwise leading the child to slightly more complex interactions. Though the two exhibits seemed to call for slightly different behavior from the adults, explanation never seemed like the best way to get children to investigate.

Studies show that one adult can influence a single child’s expression of curiosity. But a lot of the time children are not alone in a room with one adult. Often they are one of many children, and a lot is going on. Certainly this is the case in day care centers, where there may be one adult for every seven children, or schools, where there is often one adult for every twenty-three children. Are children influenced by an adult when things are noisier, messier, and more interpersonally diluted? Interested in finding out whether the adult’s smiles or frowns would affect children’s curiosity in a classroom setting, my student Hilary Hackmann and I built our own curiosity box based on the one used by Henderson and Moore (1980).

The box had eighteen little drawers in it, and in each drawer was a small, novel object. We placed the box in kindergarten and third-grade classrooms and watched to see who came up to it, how many drawers each child opened, and how long the child spent examining the objects inside the drawers. Though we had shared the common assumption that children tended to be less inquisitive about the environment as they get older, our data provided a different picture. We found that, on the whole, the nine-year-old children were as curious as the five- and six-year-old children. Just as many third graders as kindergarteners came up to the box, opened the drawers, and examined the objects. However, not all classrooms invited the same levels of curiosity. In some rooms, many children approached the box, and did so quickly, taking their time to examine several objects. Upon walking into their classroom and seeing the odd box, children said things like, “What is that?” “Whoa, where did that come from?” “It says OK to touch, so I’m going to touch it” (in response to a small sign on it that said “OK to touch”). In other rooms, regardless of grade, few children investigated the box.

This suggests that the classroom environment is as important an ingredient in a child’s curiosity as his or her age. But what is it in a classroom that serves to encourage or discourage investigation? We found that there was a direct link between how much the teacher smiled and talked in an encouraging manner and the level of curiosity the children in the room expressed. Teacher, rather than grade, explained the difference between the classrooms where children examined the box and classrooms where it was left relatively untouched. We found a clear link between the number of smiles and encouraging words the teacher said about the box, and the level of curiosity the children expressed. Teachers in classrooms where we saw lots of box examination said things like, “What do you have there? “Wow, I think you really like that thing. That’s cool. Look at that.” On the other hand, in the classrooms where we saw relatively little box exploration, teachers said things like, “Rachel, turn your body around and do your work” (when Rachel had turned to look at the box), or “I saw some of you up there by the box, and you owe me Friday’s English.”

Smiling and encouraging children to explore are two of the ways teachers influence children’s curiosity. But as we know from a vast array of research, including some I have already described, adults influence children in other ways as well. Children watch adults react to objects and events, they listen to what adults say to other people, and they watch what adults do. Imagine a child who has two teachers. One asks questions, not only to the child, but to others as well, or even to herself. She looks things up in books. She looks out the window with interest; she watches as her students make things, or play with one another. Now imagine this child in the room just down the hall. This teacher rarely studies the children while they are playing. She knows a lot of answers but seems uninterested in things she doesn’t know about. She is eager to steer the group away from topics she knows little about. She does not inquire about the children’s experiences beyond school. She is warm, friendly, and energetic, eager for her students to learn what she has planned for them, but rarely shows an appetite for what she doesn’t know. Would a child’s own curiosity be influenced differently by these two teachers? Might not a teacher’s expression of curiosity provide an invitation or a prohibition?

In order to answer that question, my student Madelyn Labella and I designed a study in which eight- and nine-year-olds were brought into a lab, one at a time, to do a science activity (Engel 2011). When the child came into the room, materials were set out on a table, and a worksheet lay nearby. Madelyn explained that she and the child were going to do a fun and interesting activity and then fill out the worksheet that went with it. Madelyn modeled her behavior on the prototype of a friendly, knowledgeable, and warm science teacher. As the child embarked on the activity, Madelyn explained various concepts, gave gentle guidance, and made friendly conversation. The activity, called “bouncing raisins,” required the child to mix baking soda, vinegar, and water and then drop raisins into the mixture. In this mixture, little bubbles form on the raisin and the raisin eventually rises to the surface. As the activity unfolded, Madelyn directed the child’s attention to the instructions on the worksheet and helped him or her fill out the questions at the bottom of the sheet, making the format of the session closely comparable to a common school science activity.

As they neared the end of the activity, Madelyn did one of two things. For half the children she said something like, “You know what? I wonder what would happen if we dropped one of these (picking up a Skittle from the table) in the liquid instead of a raisin?” With the other half of the children, instead of picking up a Skittle and dropping it in, she simply cleaned the work area up a little, commenting as she did it, “I’m just going to tidy up a bit. I’ll put these materials over here.” In other words, some of the children saw the adult/teacher show interest in exploring further and deviating from the script, while others did not. Then Madelyn left the room, claiming that she had to get some materials for the next activity and that she would be back in a few moments. As she left, she said, “Feel free to do whatever you want while you are waiting for me. You can use the materials more, or draw with these crayons, or just wait. Whatever you want to do is fine.” Then she walked out. The camera, which had been on for the whole time, remained on so that we could watch to see what the children did when left alone.

Children who had seen Madelyn deviate from the task to satisfy her own curiosity were much more likely to play with the materials. They dropped raisins, Skittles, or one of the other items into the liquid. They stirred it, added other liquids, and peered into the beaker to see what was happening.

But children who had seen her tidy up instead tended do very little while they waited. They’d stand with their hands in their pockets, look up at the ceiling, or gaze away into space. Some of them fidgeted (one spent a fair amount of time fidgeting with the zipper on his jeans). But overall they showed little interest in the materials they had used with Madelyn, and little inclination to do more with those materials. Watching the tapes of all the children, one can see a pattern that fleshes out the statistical results.

Children who had seen Madelyn do something unexpected and off-script, who had seen her display a little burst of curiosity (albeit a fairly tame “burst”), connected to the materials, and the activity, with more engagement and interest. In an experiment like this, even if someone other than Madelyn had interacted with the children, it would be impossible for the experimenter to be blind to the condition. One cannot intentionally express or suppress curiosity without knowing it. Worried that something about Madelyn’s behavior other than the manipulation was signaling to the children whether they should or shouldn’t focus on the materials in her absence, we asked outside coders to rate thin slices of the tapes. There were no differences between her behavior in the curiosity condition and the tidy-up condition, providing us with additional certainty that when an adult expresses curiosity, it affects children.

It seems clear that adults have a variety of ways of signaling to children that they can or can’t, should or shouldn’t explore objects. And those signals affect children. But it’s not just what an adult expresses to children about their behavior that matters. After all, when children and adults are together, not everything the grown-ups do is in response to what the children are doing. Parents and teachers are not always gearing their behavior directly toward the children they are with. They are to a great degree just being themselves. They lift lids, tinker, look things up, watch things carefully, and ask questions. Or they don’t. In fact, many adults do not express much curiosity in their everyday lives. There are plenty of adults who rarely want to find out about something new, or probe beneath the surface. Why wouldn’t this have an impact on children?

Parents who read are more likely to have children who read; parents who yell or hit are more likely to have children who yell and hit; and adults who do things for others are more likely to have children who do things for others. Often people have attributed this influence to a genetic link between parent and child, or in some cases to a more complicated route of influence (children whose parents hit them, for instance, may internalize feelings of anger, which in turn causes them to be angry and aggressive when they get older). However, experiments have shown that there is, in addition, a very direct modeling effect. When children watch someone hitting an inflatable clown, they are much more likely to act aggressively within the next day or so (Bandura, Ross, and Ross 1963). Similarly, children watching an adult help someone else, by giving him money, candy, or sharing a toy, are more likely to be helpful and prosocial themselves both right afterward, and for several days.

Children who see their parents reason out loud about the feelings of others are more likely to act empathically and eventually to reason about other people, as well. In other words, children watch and learn from adult behavior in the short run and in the long run. And now we have some evidence that the same is true when it comes to children’s interest in finding out more. When parents give their children some freedom to wander, explore, and tinker, it makes a difference. When parents express fear or disapproval of inquiry, that too has an effect. But parents are just the beginning. When it comes to their urge to know more, children at least as old as nine continue to be extremely susceptible to the behavior of adults. And here it’s worth remembering that children learn a lot at home from behaviors not directed toward them, and that at school the same is true.

Oddly, there has not been very much research examining how teachers’ own habits and dispositions influence the children they teach. This is a surprising gap, given the amount of time children spend with their teachers, and the power those teachers would seem to have on the everyday experience of most children. The impact of an adult’s behavior may not always be direct. In our study children didn’t copy Madelyn, but they expressed more or less interest as a result of her behavior. But indirect influence may be just as formative. I have been trying to build a case that one of the things children learn from adults is what kind of intellectual stance to take—contemplative or not, interested or not, detached or not. It seems that adults mold the stance children take toward events around them, but also model a stance as well.

In everyday life, adult responses are probably usually fleeting, subtle, and buried in the flow of other activities. In order to think about how the experimental findings can illuminate what happens to real children in real homes and schools, one must imagine these influences cast against a noisy and busy backdrop. Consider the following two contrasting examples.

Kindergarteners are sitting on a rug, while their teacher leads them through various morning routines—an alphabet song, choosing children to serve snack that day, reading through a poem, and filling in the calendar. When they get to the calendar, the teacher points to one child and says, “Hank, why don’t you go to the window and tell us what the weather is today, so we can put it on our calendar (here she points to several magnetic pieces that can be affixed on the board—one of a sun, one of a cloud, one of rain, and so on). Hank happily gets up and makes his way over to the window. He looks out and calls back, “It’s sunny!” The teacher smiles approvingly and says, “Great. Now come on back and put the sun on today’s box.” But Hank hesitates. “Wait a minute! I see snow! Can it be sunny and snowy at the same time?” The teacher, who is extremely kind and gentle and never seems to get flustered or raise her voice, says, “C’mon Hank. We’ve got to keep going. Come put the sun on the calendar.” The prohibition is quite subtle. But it is effective. Hank is discouraged from looking at the sky longer, or puzzling through the mystery of simultaneous sun and snow. He comes back and takes his place on the rug, and the group moves on to the next activity.

Compare that to the following exchange, also from a kindergarten classroom. Three girls are washing paintbrushes at the sink, while chatting happily. One of them suddenly says, “Hey, look. The paints are mixing! They’re mixed!” One of the other girls says, “It should be purple. Is it purple?” At this point they are quite excited and they are letting out little shrieks of glee at the paint that is running off the brushes and blending in a stream. The teacher walks to the sink, peering over their heads. She is smiling, and then says, “Oh, look at that. That’s amazing. Did they mix right away, or did it happen down at the bottom of the stream? I wonder what color it would be if you washed all the brushes at once?” This is just a passing moment in a day filled with lessons, schedules, and activities. But the difference between the responses of the two teachers will help shape the inquiry that will or won’t unfold in the two classrooms.

Some of the studies I have described so far identify particular behaviors that influence a child’s inquiry. In some cases adults subtly invite or discourage investigation, and in other cases their own expressions of inquiry set an important example. But of course in real life, these different avenues of influence converge and blend to create an overall environment that may be more or less conducive to children’s curiosity. And in real life, whatever forces create an environment that invites or discourages exploration, that environment is likely to be fairly stable. There is likely to be something of a pattern to this influence. Consider the following example of a child from the now distant past, which illustrates the idea vividly.

By the time he was eight, Gas hated school, chafing at the dull and constant repetition of information and mundane tasks. He may have hated lessons, but he loved information. He was a dedicated and tireless collector of postage stamps, birds’ eggs, and insects. From the time he was five, he was completely preoccupied with the outdoors, spending hours and hours in the woods near his house, collecting animal shells, interesting plants, and bugs. He was an inventor as well and spent hours creating secret codes. Delighted by any hint of mystery or surprise, he sometimes staged surprises to impress his family—once he hid some apples in a cupboard, and, hours later, pretended to discover them, as if the fruit had magically appeared in such an unlikely place. He got his nickname because of the laboratory he and his older brother set up in a shed next to their house. He spent hours there doing “experiments”— concocting potions, trying to make things bubble, smoke, and change consistency. He seemed to have an inexhaustible appetite for these investigations.

One day, when he was out in the woods near his house, collecting bugs, he found a beetle he hadn’t seen before. He crouched down to examine it—as usual, looking closely and thoroughly at a creature that interested him. But, just then, another bug crawled into his line of vision, this one equally enthralling. Gas needed to inspect both—how could he grab the new bug without losing the one he already had? Quickly, he did the only possible thing to ensure that he could fully examine both new specimens—he popped the first beetle into his mouth, freeing his hands to capture the second bug. Unfortunately for him, the beetle, trapped and in danger, defensively released a noxious liquid onto his tongue. It was worth it, he recalled later. He got to study both bugs.

When the lives of famously curious people, like Charles Darwin, are examined, it’s not unusual to find signs that they were more curious than others, even as young children. Darwin is no exception. He not only had an unusually large appetite for investigations; he also, early on, was drawn particularly to the natural world. Considering the lab where he and his brother did their “work,” one might even argue that he had an inherent attraction to science and its methods. However, these powerful traits, which he seemed to possess along with his dark hair and his high intelligence, do not tell the whole story. Because a closer look suggests that those around him were issuing invitations at every turn. Darwin grew up in a permissive and lively household. As a young child he was encouraged to explore the land around his family’s gracious rural home in England. It seems clear that his parents were not only tolerant of his investigations, but helped him pursue his interests. They provided him with space and equipment, and showed great amusement when he carried out his various tricks and surprises. He also enjoyed plenty of free time to pursue his interests, and lots of freedom to wander outside and investigate. In other words, just as Mozart’s prodigious musical talents were fostered by the adults around him who were musical, and who took great lengths to nurture his talents, so too Darwin’s appetite for novelty and information were encouraged at every turn. He is just one example, albeit an important one, of the idea that invitations or their opposite may provide a formative influence on the robustness of a child’s determination to pursue questions, and stick with a line of inquiry.

Excerpted from "The Hungry Mind: The Origins of  Curiosity in Childhood" by Susan Engel, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2015 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

By Susan Engel

Susan Engel is a developmental psychologist in the department of psychology at Williams College, where she is also the founder and director of the Williams Program in Teaching. She is the author of four previous books and a contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times.

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