Understanding curiosity and its role in learning

By Mark Story, Head of Learning Innovation

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A recent article in the New Scientist (15th October 2022 “How to be curious”) has got me thinking about how learning needs to be designed to capture the type of curiosity a learner approaches learning with.

The article cites 2 researchers – Celeste Kidd and Todd Kashdan. Celeste Kidd, a researcher at University of California, Berkeley, most notable for the 2012 ‘Marshmallow Test’ exploring delayed gratification in children, noted that to pique curiosity an activity needs to hit a sweet spot between predictability and unpredictability. The example given was a test conducted on children to determine their levels of attention in which toys were hidden by a screen and were then hidden and then revealed again to the child but with changing levels of predictability. In one round of this test the toys were consistently there, as they should be. In another, the toys weren’t there at all and in another they were sometimes there and sometimes not.

Kidd found that there is a Goldilocks zone that captures attention which is somewhere between the predictable outcomes and the unpredictable. The implication of this in learning design is to create experiences that hit this zone.

Current Ed-Tech is limited in this area – SCORM wrapped Multiple Choice Questions do little to enable a degree of unpredictability to be introduced to a learner – as they would experience in the real world. But learning activities sorely need this unpredictability to be built in. Will AI provide the answer to this? Could a Metaversal learning experience be designed to introduce randomness into a scenario and still make it realistic?

Inworld.ai – a Disney backed venture developing AI-powered virtual characters could be a move in this direction, creating characters that have user defined personality traits such as being impulsive, determined, wise, tempestuous or curious. The AI then allows open ended interaction with these characters based on those traits.

In Healthcare, while clinical skills are an essential backdrop to a healthcare professional’s performance, it is their behaviour and ability to interact (bedside manner) that determines good from great. Unlimited practice and feedback on this area, through interaction with different patients and service users, would go a long way to exercise these bedside manner muscles and the built-in unpredictability of the interactions would ensure the practice continued to grab the attention of the learner.

Professor Todd Kashdan, from George Mason university in Virginia identifies 5 different dimensions of curiosity: Deprivation sensitivity (the need to find answers to specific questions – such as ‘what is the speed of sound?’) Joyous exploration (a love of learning), Stress tolerance (your ability to handle the anxiety provoked by the unknown), Thrill seeking (taking risks in the pursuit of new experiences – such as touching an electric fence) and Social curiosity (learning from others).

While in a perfect world, all our learners would be Joyous explorers and love learning for it’s own sake, the reality is that learning design needs to connect with as many of these dimensions of curiosity (or motivations for learning). Course descriptions could go a long way to whet the appetite of those with Deprivation sensitivity “What REALLY happens in the brain when someone has a seizure?” or “This little tip could save someone’s life if they’re having a heart attack.” These sound like click-baittitles but could motivate learners into learning by tempting them with a piece of information they don’t possess.

Those with a low Stress tolerance can be reassured that the learning activity will equip them with knowledge and skills. That they won’t be left feeling vulnerable when they first undertake the activity for real.

Thrill-seekers could be motivated by a novel learning experience “Experience what it’s like inside the mind of someone with autism.” – at FuturU we are using 360 POV videos to create exactly these learning experiences.

Social curiosity can be triggered by ensuring there is social debate, expert reflection and peer to peer interaction.

Designing not only learning, but also the way in which learning is described or the platform on which it is hosted – can help tap into our innate and unique curiosity profiles. Exploiting emerging technologies (which often happen to be in the fields of gaming rather than Ed-Tech) could introduce an element of randomness to maintain learning motivation once the learner is in.

At FuturU our vision is for Universal Access to Free Healthcare Education. But within that we are seeking to break new ground in the way learning is designed and delivered to make sure learners are motivated to access and complete learning and that must be grounded in the science of learning and understanding our learners as fully as possible.

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