In a 2018 study, researchers asked elementary students about their experiences as “curious learners” at school. But many students expressed surprise. “No one is curious about what we learn in class. We just need to do whatever the teachers tell us to do,” one said.
In fact, children in this study didn’t necessarily see the link between curiosity and learning in the first place—even perceiving their own questions to be disruptive and unwelcome.
At the same time, we adults aren’t always making much room for uncertainty, openness, and exploration either—whether we’re arguing about the merits of social and emotional learning, anti-racism curricula, or the latest COVID policy at school. In a 2022 Education Week survey, teachers, principals, and district leaders claim that over half of politicians, parents, and guardians are engaging in more black-and-white thinking than they did three years ago (and under half of these educators concede that they are, too.).
But there is hope: Despite the limitations of our school environments, today’s students still seem to be more open-minded thinkers than we adults are. So, how do we help them maintain their openness and free up spaces for learning and understanding rather than rigid forms of thinking? Research on the character strength of curiosity—and its sister strength, humility—can help us feed authentic learning, human connection, and personal growth.
How curiosity and humility help us learn
Research suggests that intellectual humility and curiosity go hand in hand, and it makes sense: When we’re curious, we naturally want to learn more (“Who is the new student who just joined my class?”). We seek out new information or greater understanding when we experience uncertainty or a gap in our knowledge (“How does this robot actually work?”).
And if we’re intellectually humble about that uncertainty, we can also admit that we don’t have all the answers—that our beliefs may be faulty and our understandings incomplete. In fact, researchers link intellectual humility with the desire to seek out new information and experiences (“I don’t know, but I want to find out!”).
In addition, people who are more curious, open-minded, and humble are more likely to persist through a challenge (like an ethics debate, a confounding science experiment, or a contentious group project) because they view the natural stops and starts as opportunities for growth—rather than failures or mistakes. In a recent study of 3,000 students from large cities in 11 countries, researchers found that curiosity (and persistence) most strongly predicted academic success in both math and reading for both children and teens.
Studies also suggest that intellectual humility may inspire learners to seek out challenges and make the effort to overcome them—another route to greater success at school. Humility can free us from our egos, leading to more open-minded and flexible thinking, less defensiveness, and a willingness to learn from others’ perspectives. In other words, if a child approaches a seemingly daunting math problem with both a sense of uncertainty and a desire to learn, she has nothing to lose—especially when she knows that she can explore multiple pathways to a solution with the support of her teacher and peers.
Together, curiosity and humility can stir our passion for learning while naturally opening us up to others’ perspectives, but how do we draw on curiosity and foster a sense of humility in our classrooms? Here are four evidence-based strategies for encouraging humble curiosity at school.
Practice listening with fascination
In my review of research, I discovered what I believe to be the clearest link between curiosity and humility—it’s listening. In fact, researcher Michael Lehmann and his team recently developed a listening practice that led to greater humility. Here’s the key: When study participants listened with curiosity, “as if the speaker was telling them the most interesting things that they had ever heard,” then both members of the pair experienced an increase in humility (with the listener reporting greater humility than the speaker).
Consider what it’s like to have a parent, friend, relative, or colleague offer you their full attention. What does it feel like when they appear absolutely fascinated by what you have to say? For me, it’s disarming. My body relaxes, I feel more at ease and energized—I feel more able to be “me.” If we want our students to become more comfortable with uncertainties and intellectual challenges, we need to create spaces that feel supportive, encourage psychological safety, and enhance a sense of trust.
To try out an adaptation of Lehmann’s practice, follow the steps in Good Listening: A Path Towards Greater Humility, where students discuss the characteristics of good listeners, practice curiosity and interest while discussing a relevant course topic, and then write down three things they learned from their partner after listening deeply.
In my own work with educational professionals, I also find that carving up segments of time (typically five to 10 minutes per person) for each member of a pair (or triad) to speak without interruption or judgment can be humbling and deeply gratifying for everyone. Listeners honor the speakers’ full speaking time. Then, they respond with a “mirroring” of the speaker’s words, followed by genuine, open-ended questions. I learned this simple but powerful listening process decades ago during a retreat series hosted by the Center for Courage and Renewal.
Emphasize the value of questions
Of course, if we’re deeply curious listeners, we also tend to ask more authentic questions, and genuine questions reflect humble curiosity. Questions that invite exploration tend to start with the words “how” or “why” or “can you describe…”? They open the conversation rather than closing it down with a yes or a no—or those unfortunate leading questions like “Why weren’t you angry?” or “Didn’t you consider the other option?”
If you want to foster that sense of joyful exploration in your classroom, questions are powerful tools of your trade.
In a recent study, children who read with a “curious” (and furry) robot teacher posing questions and wonderings scored higher on “curiosity and exploration tasks” when compared to students who learned similar information from the same “non-curious” robot. What did the robot say? Things like “I wonder what would happen if…” or “I wonder what you will do now” or “This is a great word to know. What is it?”
Bottom line, the language we use as teachers and learners can significantly influence our curiosity and attitudes about learning.
Based on their curiosity research, Jamie Jirout and his colleagues created a classroom observational tool called the Curiosity in Classrooms Framework where they highlight simple ways to elevate questions in our classrooms. Here are a few:
- Write your learning objectives as questions (“Students will understand photosynthesis as a process” becomes “What is photosynthesis? How can we show each other that we understand how it works?”).
- Generate more sentence stems and questions as regular journal or discussion prompts. (“When I feel successful at school, I ….” or “What does active listening look like? How do you know that someone is really listening to you?”).
- Model using more open-ended versus closed questions as you facilitate discussions (e.g., “How did you solve #5?” rather than “What is the answer to #5?”).
- Prompt more student questions, in general (e.g., rather than asking students if they have any more questions for you, ask them, “Who can share more questions we might ask to learn about this [character, science experiment, historical event]?”).
Draw on awe to encourage exploration
If questions can spark curiosity, “awe” can foster a sense of humility. We tend to experience awe when we encounter something larger than ourselves that challenges our sense of the world—and things like nature, music, art, and architecture typically evoke a sense of awe.
A star-filled overnight camping trip, a rock concert, or an online visit to Google Earth can inspire awe, making us feel smaller, more open to others’ perspectives, more curious, and even more generous. People who savor awesome experiences also tend to have a more balanced view of their strengths and weaknesses, and studies show that their friends tend to rate them as more humble than others.
Here are a few prompts to elicit awe—and an appreciation for wonder—in your classroom (drawn from Jirout and Sharon Zumbrunn’s classroom research).
- Slow down to experience awe: “Take a few minutes to observe this [image, video clip, piece of art]. What do you notice? What do you feel?”
- Prompt your students to identify a wider range of perspectives or problem-solving pathways: “Who saw or did something different?” “Can you share another way to approach this challenge?”
- Draw on awe to encourage exploration of new ideas, materials, and ways of thinking: “This is amazing. How can you find out more?”
Although awe can be a beautiful experience or feeling, we certainly aren’t socialized to revel in humility—particularly in Western cultures. Admitting you don’t know means you aren’t in control. Even my handy Microsoft Word thesaurus associates the word “humble” with words like “meek,” “groveling,” and “humiliate.”
Psychologist Martin Covington reminds that a looming fear of failure directly influences our sense of self-worth, a fundamental belief in our own value. If we don’t get more comfortable with a little uncertainty, however, we will keep defaulting to intellectual boxing rings in a world overrun with unsolicited opinions.
So, how do you help kids get comfortable with uncertainty? You begin by modeling it. “I don’t know the answer to that question. Where can we find it?” “Sometimes I lose my train of thought when I’m trying to solve a problem or read a paragraph. I get confused, too, and that’s part of the process. How can we figure this out together?”
When we create a climate where students feel safe making mistakes and not knowing the answers, we make room for humility—and a desire to learn more. Then, humble curiosity can free us up to try harder and take a few more risks. If we believe we can learn more, grow, and change (at the heart of a “growth mindset”), we will be more likely to, nevertheless, persist.
In a recent study, elementary-aged children who learned how to solve puzzles with a “peer” robot called “Tega” ended up agreeing more strongly with growth mindset beliefs when compared to other students. What did Tega say? Things like “I will choose [this puzzle] because it looks challenging,” “I’m not afraid of challenge. I like it,” or “You tried hard. That’s what matters.”
It’s much safer to believe you know exactly how to do something—or why others do (or say) the things they do—but it doesn’t necessarily lead to intellectual growth or better relationships. If we believe that our ideas can’t evolve and people cannot change, we fall right back into fixed and rigid thinking, which can wall us off from each other.
Curiosity, along with a healthy dose of humility, opens us up to explore, learn, and grow. And it gives others the chance to do the same.