Promoting Curiosity — A Driving Force of Learning

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By: Markus Lindholm, February 2019

Curiosity is a wonder of the human mind. It goes to the heart of modernity, as a driving force for learning, novel insights and innovation, both for individuals and communities. In societies dependent on science and development, finding out what promotes or hampers curiosity and wonder in school curricula and science education should be accordingly essential. The article suggests a framework for curiosity-based science education and discuss possible options for its wellbeing during preschool, prepuberty and high-school. Distinctions between wonder, diversive and epistemic curiosity are discussed, and possible ideas for better maintenance of curiosity across school curricula are presented.


In preschool, wonder and curiosity are triggered by perceptive beauty rather than by scientific facts, and a method emphasizing “maximism” (as opposite to reductionism) in preschool science education is proposed. Concepts and terms should be kept in a flexible mode during the first years of children’s language development, to allow growth and knowledge-based development. Awareness of the difference between children’s questions of ‘what something is’ and ‘why something is’, is of particular significance. Moreover, maximism promotes friendship with the environment, and nature friendships need to be established before any systematic learning can set in.

In prepuberty, where facts and clear-cut knowledge assemble to a firm foundation, curiosity is rather encouraged by exploring the diversity of the natural world. The 9 to 12 years age is characterized by rapid growth of executive functions, and manifest as joy of gaining new motor skills, such as cycling, swimming, skating, football, dancing, or games. Increased physical freedom and the mastering of knowledge go along with growing explorative behavior, and during these years the sense for diversive curiosity flourishes.

Facts are clear-cut and unambiguous and need to be consciously and systematically learned through exercises, repetition and memorization, and the passion for reliable and diverse facts is a striking feature of the human mind during prepuberty. Students exercise and learn terms and facts with joy, strengthening the cognitive knowledge-based robustness of the pre-teen mind. While maximism promoted wondering during the pre-school age does now the diversity of the world correspondingly stimulate curiosity. However, the facts should not yet proceed to science and meta-questions. That step should remain as a half-spoken goal for the state that twelve-year-olds look forward to: that of being a “teenager”.

In high-school, science education should nourish deep knowledge-based epistemic curiosity. A certain obstacle here is the extensive use of models, which dominate contemporary science education. Models represent a problem in classrooms which is mostly overlooked: the confusion of models with reality. Instead of treating models as simplified illustrations of possible mechanistic relations, they are viewed as the reality itself. Most textbooks rather describe ‘model-realities’ where real world examples are cherry-picked only to confirm the model. Students accordingly perceive science as a set of clear-cut truths and facts, and not as a developmental process of doubt, explorations of inconsistencies and contradictive examples, invoking the impression that “everything is explained”. Many students leave high-school with learned and not explored scientific knowledge, making them indifferent towards scientific approaches in general, as the knowledge they gained was acquired by means of memorization rather than through curious and critical thinking.

Models are indeed mandatory in any science education, but empirical data which contradict them are equally important, because they unveil the other side of scientific analyses – science as a process of contradictory and competing perspectives. Models keep the thinking literally “inside the box”, as doubts tend to be framed by the model itself. Answers which invoke new questions must accordingly stem from “outside the box”, from the confusing, rich and diverse reality. A better balance between empirical oriented phenomenology and theory-generating models is needed to promote students deep and knowledge-based epistemic curiosity, leading to a better balance between closing and opening science answers.

I hence advocate a methodology for curiosity based science education departing from maximism and deep wonder during preschool age, correspondingly emphasizing rich fact based knowledge and focusing on the diversity of our world during pre-puberty, turning to deep curiosity-driven scientific thinking in adolescence and high-school. 

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