Character education: Teaching them curiosity

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Curiosity is a difficult skill to teach and perhaps harder still to harness and direct. Our resident character education expert, Matt Bawden, explores the nature and use of curiosity in education

When we practise curiosity, do we do so in the right way, towards the right people and things, at the right times, and for the right reasons? In other words, do we use our curiosity well?

Curiosity quite possibly did kill the cat, but it may have been because the cat was too curious, and in actuality would have died just as swiftly had it been incurious. There really is much to watch out for with curiosity if you are a cat. The same is probably true for students.

Curiosity in the right way

When we aspire to learn we are curious. We might be interested in answers, in developing a skill, perhaps in being better than our peers, or able to access the next level of something hitherto beyond our reach.

Students have lived with this concept in their social spheres for a long time, whether questing for the latest Pokemon or in making friends in the playground. In both of these scenarios they know how to be curious.

The young people who are able to use their curiosity in the right way can locate potential friends and can be socially more successful. When they fail it is often because of outside factors or because other elements of curiosity are being poorly used.

Learning how to use curiosity in the right way takes time. Students do not start life great at video games or finding friends, they learn.

Therefore, it is wrong for us to assume that students can automatically be curious in our subjects at school.

Certainly they need guidance, mentorship, perhaps even instruction – though we need to be careful here.

As teachers, we probably developed a love of learning in our disciplines, and when we look back we might even be able to pinpoint when. Certainly I remember a great teacher who inspired me to be interested in my subjects. I also remember friends who made me want to develop my studies at university, and heroes who empower me now as I try to be a better teacher.

What I remember about the teachers isn’t their behaviour management, their seating plan, the starters or plenaries. What I remember is the way they made me want to learn like they learned, and the look of curiosity they had in their eyes. I wanted to have the same.

Focusing curiosity

However, when we start out we can be curious about the wrong people or things. A year or two back I bought a fantastic coffee machine. It truly made excellent coffee. Up until a few weeks ago I loved that machine as much as anyone can love a machine. Each night I’d return from school and we would make great coffee.

I quested for the best brew. I purchased the best beans, a special grinder, and made glossy, rich dark cups of happiness. But my curiosity was misplaced. I had become far too swept up in the coffee and the headaches started. I should have split my drinking pleasure across less caffeinated beverages.

The same might be said for the student who is swept along by an aspect of a subject. It is easy to become engrossed in a pocket of science, or an area of music, without looking outside to see the vast expanse offered by the rest of the course. Clearly there are unlikely to be headaches, but it may be best to develop a balanced sense of curiosity where all aspects of a subject are given their due weight.

As teachers, we can be the arbiters of this balance, as it is really difficult to see it for yourself when you are on the inside. With my coffee issues I was fortunate to have someone telling me to stop. Students need us to guide them towards the right way to be curious, and this includes being curious towards things and people.

Curiosity at the right times

When students are curious towards the right things, or people, they can still get it wrong. There is a time and a place for many things in our world, and curiosity is one.

When we feel our students are being inappropriately interested it is often a side-effect of our success. We have succeeded, in part, in making them keen to learn. Their desire to find out is unconstrained and wishes to proceed at its own pace.

Yet this is not possible in our real worlds. Sadly, there are times when the test must be taken, or the more trivial completed. Equally we cannot be there every moment of every day to advance their learning.

Perhaps we need to take a step back and move in the direction of the right people and things. If we do so there are others who can take on the mantle and enthuse our learners.

A great homework can empower the parents to do what you can’t once the day is over. Maybe the next homework shouldn’t be for the student, perhaps it should be for the parent?

Something like “discuss the most interesting thing you ever heard about geography when you were in school”, or “explain one amazing fact you learned about an author from your mum/dad/grandparent”.

I still remember my PGCE tutor offering his best ever homework – “find a friend and go outside after dark, look up at the night sky, and tell him/her what you see”.

Curiosity for the right reasons

A couple of days ago I went to a really super conference and someone asked me whether character education leads to social justice. Someone else might have talked about how it equally leads to a better job, or successful family life. All three of these responses are riddled with problems.

In reality if we develop curiosity for any of these reasons we may find it falters. Perhaps the only good reason is to encourage human flourishing, whether our own or others. By doing so we may well find these instrumental aims are realised, but that the core aim is far more significant.

In conclusion, there are perhaps a few things for us to consider:

  1. Do we really believe there is such a thing as a student who lacks curiosity? Or is it more the case that you never see it?
  2. When a student is curious do we harness it? What strategies really work?
  3. Why do you want them to be curious? Is it for their success or for their selves?
  4. Is the curiosity driven by the course content someone else sets? Or by what they really desire to know?

Recently I have had some great discussions with STEM teachers from Project LASAR who are exploring just these questions. One of the key areas appeared to be linking faith with physics. I wonder how we tackle such thorny issues in our settings, and then again whether we even approach them. After all, if it isn’t on the curriculum, should we encourage their curiosity at all?

  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. He is a former teacher-in-residence with the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv

School websites and character

In his next article for SecEd, Matt will be discussing how schools can use their website to illustrate, communicate and enhance their character ethos. This article was due to publish in this edition but will now run on January 5, 2017.

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