The curious child: How curiosity helps with learning

Every teacher loves it when children ask questions and then start exploring the answers. Their minds are awake, they sit up in attention and their curiosity is piqued. The lights are on. When kids are curious, they are far more likely to stay alert and engaged.

So why is curiosity so important, and why does it make the brain so stimulated? According to a study from the University of California, when we become curious our brain chemistry changes, which helps us to learn and retain information.

The brain is a fascinating organ. Every day we are faced with mountains of information, but even those with excellent memories will remember just a fraction of what they were exposed to. So why is it that we remember some things and forget others?

The science behind curiosity and learning
Charan Ranganath, a researcher in the study, was ‘curious’ to find out why some information is easy to retain and some is not. To analyse this, they selected 19 volunteers and asked them to sit through more than 100 trivia questions. These questions were anything from “Which Beatles single lasted the longest on the chart at 19 weeks?” to “What does the term ‘dinosaur’ mean?”

The volunteers were then asked to rate the questions in terms of how curious they were about the answers. After this process, study participants reviewed the questions and answers while their brain activity was monitored using an MRI machine. The researchers discovered that when an individual’s curiosity was aroused, the parts of the brain that regulate pleasure and reward fired up. There was also increased activity in the hippocampus, which is where memories are created.

When we are stimulated, this part of our brain lights up and dopamine releases, which gives us a type of high. Dopamine is a chemical that is released when we are exposed to a variety of pleasurable or dangerous activities such as receiving rewards, money, gambling, taking certain drugs or sugary foods. Thankfully, it is also released when we are curious. When this happens, it improves the connections in the brain required for learning (the limbic system), making it easier for us to learn.

How does this help with getting children to learn?
Curious children learning process - Sage Child CareStimulate children and pique their curiosity, and you will enable them to learn more easily and to retain the information. What’s more, the study confirmed that curiosity helps with remembering the more boring information, too. For example if a child is in a class which they find stimulating and they are inspired, and then move straight into a less interesting class, their brains will continue to be more receptive to understanding and recalling the information in the second class.

Some teachers use this process by inspiring children with interesting questions that will get them excited before launching into a less stimulating activity. A teacher may ask a string of questions about a favourite subject to get kids thinking and stimulated. Then, when the kids are on their ‘learning high’ the teacher can introduce a more complex concept that is important to remember – with positive results!

For many teachers, this is something they’ve been intuitively aware of and have been practising for years. Now though, it’s been tested and backed up by science!

Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan

Vicki Tuchtan is the Academic Director at Sage Institute of Education. She oversees learning processes, teaching outcomes, resources and course development. A passionate advocate for bettering standards of training in Australia, she is currently writing her PhD thesis on defining quality training in the Australian vocational education sector.
Vicki Tuchtan

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