Encouraging Curiosity in the Classroom (and Beyond!)

By Dr. Kylie King, Assistant Professor, Stiller School of Business

I am a teacher and scholar of innovation and entrepreneurship, so it probably goes without saying that I believe innovative and entrepreneurial mindsets can be nurtured to grow over time. But I will go ahead and say it – we can train ourselves, and our students, to approach life in a way that encourages innovation and entrepreneurialism! Of course innovation and entrepreneurialism are important when it comes to, say, starting a business. But, I would argue, they are also important to living a fulfilling life.

As depicted in the below illustration, there are several attributes or behaviors that are common to both innovator and entrepreneur mindsets, including curiosity, awareness, managing challenges, and creativity. This post will tackle the first of those attributes, curiosity; sharing information about how it is manifested, measured, and how it might be fostered in ourselves and our students.

Venn diagram showing overlaps between the "Innovator Mindset" and the "Entrepreneurial Mindset"

Five Dimensions of Curiosity

According to Dr. Todd Kashdan of George Mason University and his team of colleagues, there are five dimensions of curiosity: 

  • Joyous Exploration (the desire to seek new knowledge and subsequent joy of learning)
  • Deprivation Sensitivity (seeking to reduce gaps in knowledge)
  • Stress Tolerance (willingness to embrace confusion or distress that comes with exploring new areas)
  • Social Curiosity (wanting to know what other people are thinking and doing)
  • Thrill Seeking (taking risks physically, socially, and emotionally)

The first dimension, Joyous Exploration, is what most of us imagine when we picture curiousity or curious individuals. According to Kashdan and colleagues, that is important, but there is much more to creativity than we might assume.

Four Types of Curious People

Curiosity can show up differently in different people based on their levels of comfort with each of the above five dimensions. Kashdan has come up with categories for these different types of curious people:

The Fascinated: high on all dimensions of curiosity

Problem Solvers: high on deprivation sensitivity

Empathizers: high on social curiosity

Avoiders: low on all dimensions of curiosity

One thing I especially like about this method of classification is that everyone is curious! Even someone who is low in every dimension has a curiosity profile. And I believe that luckily, there are ways we can encourage even the Avoiders among us to approach our classes and our lives with more curiosity.

Tips for Becoming More Curious

  1. Pay attention! Approach the world with the curiosity of children. With my children, it both pains me and enthralls me to spend an hour walking a quarter mile, taking time to get out of the stroller and inspect every drain we encounter, but I am always in awe of the amazing things my kids notice that I would usually not even consider. How can you pay more attention to the world around you without spending an afternoon babysitting my kids? I use The Art of Noticing as a teaching tool and also love the author’s weekly newsletter. It is full of exercises to get you seeing the world with a new, more nuanced perspective.
  2. Value your questions. According to respected scholar (and our friend and coworker) Dr. Lindsey Godwin, we should value our questions — or as she suggested in her Blue Stool pop-up lecture we should actually learn to love our questions! By paying attention to our questions, we can help ignite our curiosity. We should never be afraid to ask ourselves, or others, “why?” Want to encourage your students to embrace their own questions? Encourage open-ended discussions about topics without one correct answer.
  3. Do what you love. Identifying your passion and purpose can be intimidating, for college students and for me! Don’t overwhelm yourself with a high standard here, just find something that you enjoy doing and go do it! Be it reading, biking, cooking, or crafting, diving headfirst into activities you enjoy puts you in the right frame of mind to allow curiosity to flourish. Even if you or your equestrian-loving students can’t bring their horse to the classroom, they can be invited to select their own topics, assignments, or otherwise exercise agency in the classroom. And we all need to find a way to jot down those flashes of insight that arrive when we are out doing what we love.
  4. …but also try something new! Gotcha! Yes, following your interests is great, but it is also important to give yourself and your students the opportunity to be a newbie. The curiosity (and humility) that come with taking up a new activity or trying out a new skill allow us to experience the full range of possibilities in an experience, something we can’t do when we enter as experts. Tom Vanderbilt’s book Beginners encourages us to try new things and embrace a beginners mindset. I’m all about this. Our dear colleague Dr. Barbara Colombo just shared with me a Google folder titled “Cool papers on cognitive load and neuroeconomics” and I’m chomping at the bit to dig in! How can you honor and celebrate the beginners mindset that your students might bring to your classroom?
  5. Play devil’s advocate…with yourself. Try to understand an issue from both sides. Pick something weighty and/or important, like mandating COVID vaccinations.  Or pick something a little sillier, like the fact that Survivor is the best reality TV show ever created (just kidding, that is not debatable). The point is, even in conversations with yourself, try to think about how and why someone might take an opposing view. And encourage your students to do the same. Create a classroom where students feel psychologically safe to challenge themselves, each other, and their instructor. You’ll encourage curiosity with the added bonus of helping students create better cases for their own beliefs.

Curious to learn more about curiosity or the innovator and entrepreneur mindsets? I always love speaking with my Champlain colleagues about the exciting stuff we are collectively doing and building!

Citations

Kashdan, T.B., Disabato, D.J., Goodman, F.R., & McKnight, P.E. (in press). The Five-Dimensional Curiosity Scale Revised (5DCR): Briefer subscales while separating overt and covert social curiosity. Personality and Individual Differences.

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