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  • Tiara Prasad

Curious Case of Curiosity

Updated: Feb 27

A Case for Putting Curiosity in Spotlight


Students exploring the ‘Curiosity Box’ provided as part of the Think & Make Program


Working with children in the field of skill development and problem solving has always made me wonder about how people learn. From all the factors that come into play, this time I got to dip my hands into the case of curiosity. 


Like most soul-searching quests, a series of text messages pulled me into a spiral of reading and wanting to understand, ‘Is curiosity a skill we can teach or a mindset we can facilitate?’. 


All of the back and forth got me wondering; got me wondering; got me wondering…


That’s essentially what it is, right? Wonder. A desire to unravel something new, a tingling sense at stumbling upon something unknown. How? Why? It captures our minds and becomes that scratch that calls on our fingers. Fortunately, I had the tools to pursue this wonder! Curiosity about curiosity got the better of me.


One of the earliest theories on curiosity in children by Jean Piaget argues that in an attempt to make sense of their surroundings, curiosity drives a child’s need to understand something that they are not familiar with. This exploratory nature is observed in infants naturally and is associated with cognitive development. While this explains the natural behaviour seen in humans and animals as an instinctual response, it does not explain the natural behaviour as a stimulated response, like our interest in art or museums, or our excitement to unwrap a gift, or the manic energy to do things that are not essential for our survival - I’m pretty sure a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle isn’t going to prevent me from becoming predator or scavenger fodder.


But we still indulge in it, ravenously. We are curious to travel & see new places, to meet new people & learn about them, to play new games & discover some more, or to sometimes not do any of it and see what happens. Curiosity is a lot of seeking out and wondering, ‘How?’, ‘Why?’, and ‘What if?’.


For something so rampant in living beings, what is the role of curiosity? Through the year, theories have concluded not one, but many roles it plays. Curiosity is seen as a driving factor in identity formation, as a tool for us to seek information that we in turn associate with. What draws you, and what information or experiences stick to you - what genre of movies you prefer, what music tastes you form, ultimately defining you. 

Sensory effects of satiating curiosity are also linked to the release of dopamine; the flipside of which shows that a prolonged lack of a surrounding that fosters curiosity can lead to sensory deprivation. Can that really happen? Is it possible to be devoid of curiosity?


There have been more attempts & new / emergent theories that try to decipher curiosity. Of them, some include the ‘Information Gap Theory’, similar to the ‘Incongruity Theory’, wherein uncertainty in our surroundings is said to create a state of curiosity which compels us to unravel more information and gain more clarity. It states that whenever there is a gap between what we know and what is happening in our surroundings, curiosity kicks in, in an effort to plug the gap. ‘Drive Theory’ on the other hand, argues that curiosity is a compulsion or necessity, just like hunger or thirst, that needs to be satiated periodically with new or old hobbies, from something as simple as completing a Wordle puzzle to staring at an art installation & empathising with the artist. Curiosity has also been found to fuel sensation seeking, or the mindset to take risks & achieve novelty; a lot of extreme sports enthusiasts and visionaries might exhibit this. None of these are contrary to the other. 



The Curiosity Box consists of items like story cards, activities, and prototyping material that students discover as the learning session progresses


Curiosity is a tingling sensation that sets in motion questions and quests, discoveries and relations. But to what extent does curiosity drive learning? If curiosity was enough to ensure learning, putting people in unfamiliar spaces continuously would be enough to drive outcomes! Curiosity may not ensure learning but it sure does serve as its first instigator. The curious cat, the curious crow… a curious human may start by wondering about the rainbow, space, & stars before delving into understanding them.


Clearly, curiosity is a tool worth having and honing, but can we really teach others to be curious? Can we really change people’s outlook towards the unknown? Or are people just born with different curiosity quotients? Should it be a skill that is practised or an environment that should be curated?


While the exact truth to this is difficult to examine, much like the nature vs nurture debate, curiosity has been observed to manifest in 2 forms:


  1. The first is called ‘State Curiosity’ [extrinsic]. It is generally based on a reaction to an external situation and can be as mundane as wondering why there is traffic at 02:00 at night while driving down a road. So, changes in our external environment or external stimuli can promote state curiosity.

  2. The other kind is called ‘Trait Curiosity’ [intrinsic]. It is related to the idea of lifelong learning, and sees people learning about or doing things just for the sake of it. Trait curiosity has been linked to all manner of experience seeking and behaviour, from doom scrolling about conspiracy / fan theories to finally trying out that rock climbing gym!

We can generally look at trait curiosity as a characteristic latent in all of us, but only exhibited in a high order in some of us. But why so?  


According to a modern psychological school of thought, anxiety and fear can stifle trait curiosity. Studies have negatively correlated curiosity with fear: The more fearful or anxious a person is, the less likely they are to venture out and satiate curiosity. Which makes sense, since the more fearful you are of failure and mistakes, the less likely you would be to venture out and try new things.


High associated risks, the lack of tools or competencies, states of deprivation: there are some constraints on a person’s ability & willingness to fan the flames of their curiosity. In other words, you can look at curiosity as the urge that draws us out of our comfort zones and fear as the agent that keeps us within them.


What implication does this have on education? Firstly, it requires us to acknowledge curiosity as a driving force and a natural enabler of learning so that we can harness it.


The entire tenant of problem solving as a part of academics resides in the ability to get students wondering about the problems around them. When we apply this to content design and curriculum development, we can try to target the nurturing of curiosity through both ways:


  1. Catering to state curiosity by creating instances, situations, or events that elicit the desire to know, to resolve, to understand.

  2. Catering to trait curiosity by creating environments that reduce fear and anxiety, where failures are welcomed and mistakes are encouraged.

While I still don’t have a concrete answer to whether curiosity is a mindset or a skill, I am inclined to believe that curiosity naturally exists in all of us but it is possible for it to dwindle down when we are not given enough opportunities to pursue it. Developing in students the confidence to pursue their curiosities is what enables them to face the world without fear, to seek out problems that tingle their minds, to take risks, and to explore their place in it. Curiosity might just be a beginning in the journey of problem solving, but it sure can make it begin with a bang!


Works Cited

Clark, Josh. “How Curiosity Works | HowStuffWorks.” Science | HowStuffWorks, 9 June 2023, https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/curiosity.htm


Kashdan, Todd B., et al. “The Five Dimensions of Curiosity.” Harvard Business Review, vol. September-October, 2018, pp. 58-60. The Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-five-dimensions-of-curiosity

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