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Two Kinds of Curiosity and the One that Science Supports

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I've mentioned before that there are two kinds of curiosity: fruitful and fruitless.

Post Image- Fruitful CuriosityFruitful curiosity

Fruitful curiosity is that which we efficiently act upon as we're studying a subject.

  • In my survey world history course, I'm reading about the five pillars of Islam in our World History textbook, and it mentions the hajj to Mecca, so I quickly do a Google Image search for the hajj and find photos of countless white-clad pilgrims at the Masjid al Haram.
  • In my AP World History course, I'm memorizing some “Must Know Dates,” and when I come to the Battle of Lepanto and realize I know nothing about it or why it might merit inclusion on the list, I Google the event and summarize it in my head: “Okay, so Lepanto was a big deal because it was the last major naval battle in the Mediterranean between galley-style ships — so it's sort of symbolic of the end of an age — and because it prevented the Ottomans from expanding further on the European side of the Med.”
  • In my pursuit of a 21 minute 5k, I'm thinking about my upcoming jog tonight and wondering how I get faster, so I call up my Uncle Larry, who had his fastest 5k during his 30s, and ask him for some training advice.

The key is that I'm efficiently seeking some satisfaction for my curiosity. This is the kind of curiosity that is highly predictive of success because it helps us learn things for the long term (the science of which I'll share in a minute). This kind of curiosity, then, is a character strength worth teaching kids.

Fruitless curiosity

Fruitless curiosity, on the other hand, enters our minds and leaves without ever being explored. (Sad face.)

Most of us end up training ourselves into this kind of curiosity because we think it saves us time — after all, in the scenarios listed above, we don't spend the minutes it takes Googling our questions or calling our uncles.

But here's the thing: It only saves us time if we don't want to learn something for the long-term. If, indeed, we don't want to do that, then fruitless curiosity is the way to go. It's worth knowing how and when to waive off a curious thought and do nothing more with it.

The science that supports fruitful curiosity

The thing is, it tends to be more helpful in life to learn things for the long term if you're going to learn them at all.

So why does fruitful curiosity produce long-term learning? The answer is found in Brown, Roediger, and McDaniels' popular, evidence-rife, well-written Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

Fruitful curiosity leads us to do what Make It Stick‘s authors call elaboration, which is an evidence-based strategy for “improving [our] mastery of new material and multipl[ying] the mental cues available to [us] for later recall and application” (p. 207).

From Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning:

Elaboration is the process of finding additional layers of meaning in new material…. Examples include relating the material to what you already know, explaining it to somebody else in your own words, or explaining how it relates to your life outside of class.

We're not talking about learning styles here; rather, this is about having as many mental cues as you can have for a thing you're trying to learn.

  • As I try to learn the five pillars, the image of thousands on the hajj becomes a mental cue.
  • As I try to remember the Battle of Lepanto, those symbolic galley ships become an additional mental cue. (Bonus: 1571 becomes about way more than an obscure battle; it signifies a turning point in naval history, which is one more mental cue for me in my quest to carry a robust timeline in my head as an APWH student.)
  • As I try to become a better runner, that phone call to my uncle becomes another mental cue. I can draw from it as I continue pondering how to improve my athletic performance.

I have no empirical evidence from my own classroom to support the power of fruitful curiosity, but my reading of Make It Stick is helping me see that it's more than just a neat concept. Whenever we can connect familiar concepts (character strengths) with new learning (Make It Stick), that's one for the win column.


3 Responses to Two Kinds of Curiosity and the One that Science Supports

  1. Deborah October 27, 2015 at 9:08 am #

    Powerful commentary on how important connections are to all of us -not just for students. I plan to share with another teacher who now teaches many of the students I had last year. They were strong in making connections, and she has determined they no longer need to do that when they read. I am more convinced than ever that they do! Thank you.

  2. James October 27, 2015 at 11:30 am #

    Hey Dave, it’s James again – I am not stalking you (sinister face). What are examples of fruitless curiosity?

    You mentioned learning the five pillars and it reminded me of one of the other pillars – The Shahada.

    The shahada is the statement of faith, and if you say it and mean it, you are a muslim. It goes, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”

    Since I lived in Turkey for ten years, I decided I wanted to learn the arabic version – “la ilah Allah, wa muhammed rasullah.” (I hope I didn’t butcher it)

    In order to learn this, my friend and I set it to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th. It stuck. I’ve rarely ever actually used the information, but anytime I want to recall it, I just bring up the tune to Beethoven’s 5th.

    Is this an example of elaboration?

    • davestuartjr October 30, 2015 at 10:20 pm #

      James, speaking of stalking — I was just looking through some old notes and came across bitsofturkishdelight.blogspot.com ! What a pleasure to once again reminisce on our conversations at the National DI Conference in Vegas and to imagine what it was like being a young family in Turkey!

      The book Make It Stick would call that song a mnemonic device — something distinct from elaboration, I think. With that said, keep in mind that I’m just learning this stuff too! 🙂

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