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Curiosity is a Mindset

How could curiosity be the key to successful learning? We’re intrinsically motivated to ask questions when we find things interesting … a lesson for educators and students in all stages of life.

It starts at school

From the age of 6 to approximately 22, young people have a very clear primary job: to be students. They have bosses (teachers, principals), tasks (assignments, projects, tests, exams), and evaluations (grades, report cards). They are judged by their performance, rewarded for properly following instructions, demonstrating skills, and the retention and application of knowledge that was taught in their courses. For many, this is a tough job. I believe there needs to be a support system to get them through it successfully, and with curiosity.

After over 10 years in the tutoring industry, and some experience in the job market myself, I’ve come across a perplexing double-standard. When someone’s job is to make cakes, they learn all of the details of cake-making; how the chemistry works, baking techniques, and how to problem-solve when things don’t work. A student’s job is to learn, but they are not taught the fundamentals on how to learn; how our psychology and brains work, mastering learning techniques, and how to learn from failure.

Here’s another perplexing thought: we send all of our children to school, but many of them are bored and completely disinterested. School is a chore, and the best part of the day is when the bell rings and they get to go home. What have we done to make the learning experience so dreadful and agonizing? Isn’t learning supposed to be fun, enriching, and rewarding?

It goes beyond the classroom

What are the implications of putting young people through an education system that merely teaches them to perform, rather than how to learn and be resourceful and independent. Furthermore, what kind of lessons are lost when students aren’t interested in the learning process? And last but not least, are we forgetting to foster curiosity?

We miss out on teaching life-skills that will be useful for them as young adults: organization, time-management, anxiety management, and prioritization. Most importantly; how to have a curious mindset. I spend my days speaking with adults and professionals about my approach to working with teens, and 9 times out of 10 their first response is “I can use that.” Imagine if we taught time-management in grade 6 … the benefits would go far beyond the classroom!

Feeling comfortable with challenges, risks, and the opportunity to learn and grow as people and professionals.

We miss out on fostering creativity and curiosity. We reinforce the idea that success is performance-based, and lose sight of the value of learning itself, of feeling comfortable with challenges, risks, and the opportunity to learn and grow as people and professionals. There is so much value in using our imagination, thinking outside the box, and being rewarded for finding creative solutions to problem solving—a life-skill that is very attractive in the work-force and indispensable to entrepreneurs.

We miss out on building intrinsic motivation. Students are motivated by fear: fear of failing, fear of disappointing their teachers and parents, fear of not getting good enough grades to get into a top university, fear of being overshadowed by stronger students, and fear of being an inferior job candidate. Intrinsic motivation is different than fear—and far more powerful. It is what drives us to do things without rewards, for the enjoyment and fulfilment that an activity brings. It is the backbone of innovation and independent thinking; it is what pushes people to produce work that they are proud of, and to ultimately reach their full potential. Intrinsic motivation is often undermined by a lack of clear goals, purpose, and relevance.

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A Vision for Skills-Based Learning

My philosophy is that the value of education isn’t necessarily the material itself. I think that it is safe to say that not everyone will rely on their knowledge of volcanic rock to have a meaningful and successful life. We need to teach people how to learn from a desire based on curiosity, by making things relevant, and relating simple topics to big and exciting ones. When we have big projects to take on, we’re equipped to dive deeply into whatever gets us excited.

We can use all sorts of topics to expose young people to the skills that they will need to be independent learners. If writing an essay on the three interpretations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth teaches a student how to time-manage, plan ahead, use their resources, and learn how to come up with new ideas and express themselves clearly, they’ve won no matter what their grade is. We can teach these skills in school, or in my case, make it part of after school education at home or with tutors. The shelf-life of those skills goes far beyond the instant reward for accurate facts and information.

Having autonomous employees, creative and resourceful leaders, and people who can contribute their knowledge to society in a meaningful way will have lasting effects.

My vision for skills-based learning is that education is empowering. That we replace fear of failure with a motivation to try, and learn from mistakes. If we can get young people to be resilient and independent from a young age, in a few years our companies, businesses, organizations, and institutions will feel the benefits. Having autonomous employees, creative and resourceful leaders, and people who can contribute their knowledge to society in a meaningful way will have lasting effects.

So, how can we can change the dialogue of learning—as adults, role-models, mentors, parents, and peers? We can rephrase the concept of success/failure. Personal challenges are good, and poor grades can be a great learning opportunity. We can adjust our attitude to be more open to learning experiences, and find ways to integrate a curiosity-based mentality without fear of “failure.”

Curiosity is a mindset, and it starts in our schools and with a new vocabulary that focuses on enjoying the learning process.


Header image by Mark on Flickr.

Mira Katz

Mira is a passionate educator based in Montreal. She is the founder of a company with a vision to “Redefine Education” by fostering curiosity, confidence, and creativity. She is pioneering Skills-Based Tutoring and offers the first complete-approach tutor training in the city.