The case for curiosity

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Albert Einstein

Any teacher or trainer will vouch for the value of curiosity in the learning process. It is a valuable individual motivation to close a knowledge gap. Indeed curiosity has been shown in behavioural science experiments to fuel active learning behaviours like asking questions, exploration and experimentation, researching and seeking solutions, and ‘trial behaviour’ or in other words – try something, see what happens and learn from it. For employers these seem valuable workplace skills and behaviours to encourage in these times when organisations seek resilience, innovation, change adaptability amongst employees and a culture of learning and engagement.

The relationship of curiosity to learning is not new. It has its roots in philosophy, behavioural psychology, motivation theory, and more recently in neuro-science and importantly cognitive constructivist theories of learning attributed to psychologist Jean Piaget. This theory says that people cannot simply be given information but that instead they “construct” their own learning by building on their knowledge through their experiences.

In the workplace, many people will identify with the kind of formal learning or training that is prescribed for them, is sometimes made mandatory by their employer and is designed to achieve organisational aims, e.g. training to ensure compliance. The employee’s interest in the subject matter is almost a secondary concern. Does this diminish its value for learners? Some studies suggest that if learners are not curious and they don’t acknowledge that they need to know more about a subject they won’t seek to know more, which limits the effectiveness of learning.

Other research suggests that when people are curious, then as they begin to close an information gap through learning, this actually increases their curiosity. It seems that knowing something about something encourages us to keep on going to learn more! One explanation for this might be that this type of behaviour is akin to that drive to finish a murder mystery novel – the scene is set, the characters are in place and the murder happens – we want to know “whodunit?” The best of these stories compel us to keep reading until we find out.

Studies suggest that by being curious, we make the brain more receptive to learning. This results in learning that is more memorable, more effective and more rewarding for learners as they experience the same good feelings through the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine as they would from extrinsic reward motivators.

So what does this imply for learning and development professionals? Should they give up on mandatory and compliance training courses unless learners express an interest? Should all courses end with a cliff-hanger – in the next thrilling instalment of our health and safety update you will….. oh that’s all we have time for, cue theme tune! I jest.

Longstanding theories of adult learning suggest that adults must identify a benefit to them in learning – it should solve real problems they have, preferably at the point that they need it most. Learning promoted and delivered in this way is more likely to invoke some kind of curiosity and incentive for participants. The ability to see how information will help them – in their current role, to change role, the gain that promotion might be one sort of incentive. Another incentive is to get some kind of feedback about how the learning has made a difference to the employee which might be as simple as the time and opportunity to reflect on this with a line manager or a more formal evaluation where changed behaviours or improved performance are recognised.

Employers at one time were fairly generous in their funding of personal development and continuing professional development. The budgets for open-ended funding of these without there being an immediate payback for the organisation are somewhat rarer in these times. That being the case, what else can we do?

The internet and advent of open educational resources, MOOCs, TED talks, Khan Academy and the myriad other sources of free learning harnessed in an appropriate way have transformed how learners learn and should be transforming how teachers and trainers facilitate learning for their learners. But there are drawbacks of this plentiful supply. With greater volume and better access, the new issue is how we filter out the wheat from the chaff. In an age when there are facts and non-facts, truths and post-truths, is this abundance of information always reliable, current, valid and appropriate? Clearly not!

To make use of the best of these resources takes an ability to curate, research, explore with a purpose in mind and to determine quality by being discerning about sources and retaining an open mind to alternative views. These are valuable learning skills that can be taught and encouraged – and it may also strike you they are the behaviours of the curious learner. So perhaps by teaching people to ask questions like – who wrote this? Where and when was this published? Who sponsored this information? What is their underlying purpose? How did they form this view? How does this compare to … and so on. Which sounds very much like the kind of questions that people who are curious about something ask.

Curiosity has at one time been considered to be a personality trait – something that is fixed. The literature seems to say that it is more fluid than that – we are all curious about some things more than others, and we can become more curious about things as we learn more about them. This leads me to question whether we should be finding ways to encourage learners to take responsibility for their own learning and getting the most they can from it. In this way, learners would be encouraged to consider every learning experience as something to draw on. To mangle a famous quote “ask not what the L&D department can do for you but what you can do for yourself!” Making time for learning, embracing informal learning and encouraging opportunities to teach and learn from peers all help to foster a culture of learning in the workplace and a sound foundation for applying wide-ranging knowledge and information to problems and challenges that arise every day. After all, some of the best ideas and innovations occur in this way.

The case for curiosity in learning seems clear though – it is helpful, beneficial and the behaviours it invokes in us also seems to me to be valuable in the workplace as well as offering some benefit in daily life. Through questioning the value and relevance of the swathes of data and information across all media, we can be more discerning, take better decisions, make better choices and build our knowledge and understanding – and it seems also feel good about learning.

Liz Moody is senior lecturer in management development at The Open University Business School