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What Intellectual Virtues Might an Adult Learn from a Child’s Curiosity?

What is curiosity? Is it a drive, an emotion, a behavior, or some combination? Curiosity researchers sometimes measure it as a temporary state, sometimes as an enduring trait. Theories of curiosity link it to arousal, and even anxiety, to sensation seeking, but also to information seeking.

In short, there seems to be no consensus on either what curiosity is, or how to measure it. But there is wide agreement on at least one thing: curiosity is a natural part of being a child. This certainly matches our commonsense intuitions. Children seek out every opportunity to discover new things. They explore their surroundings. They ask “Why?” and “How come?” repeatedly. They seem to do all of this with unlimited energy and no regard for danger, or, for that matter, the needs of busy, tired parents.

Given the tangle of definitions, we start with a question: Is there any principled way of characterizing the curiosity of young children? Does children’s curiosity teach us anything we could apply to our own lives?

1. Be curious about information, not novelty

Four is a glorious age. Old enough to run around, open doors, and, at 3.3 feet reach most of the low kitchen cabinets. Four-year-olds are fully social beings – they can take the perspective of others, have genuine conversations with adults and other children, and show kindness, generosity, and empathy.  Some of the “boundary testing” of the 2’s and 3’s is over, and a four-year-old child can get to the business of learning new things in earnest.

Curiosity motivates them to gather information. For example, four-year-olds understand that the principles of cause and effect govern the world, yet they don’t know in detail what all of those causal principles are. Laura Schulz and her colleagues at MIT have conducted experiments that elegantly show that, time and again, four year olds will forgo seeking novelty in favor of persistence, provided there is something about causality still to be learned.

And they don’t play haphazardly.  They test out new ideas, creating new things to do with old materials: How else can I use this object? What else does this contraption do?

Only when a causal principle is discovered do they move on to the next, newer thing. On an unconscious level, they are monitoring “information gaps” rather than novelty. This type of curiosity is scientific.  It is also creative.

2. Have curiosity without fear

Learning involves taking risks. It seems like the older we get, the more the emotions that surround learning are ones of hesitancy, and even fear. What if I don’t understand? What if all of this effort is wasted, leading nowhere? What if I fail, and what if someone finds out?

Young children’s learning is not subject to these nagging fears.  One indication of this is that children’s curiosity cannot be explained away by temperament.  There are bold, adventurous kids.  There are shy, hesitant kids.  But all of them, faced with the possibility of learning something new, are curious.

Each child finds her own way to satisfy her curiosity: she might venture out on her own; she might ask her mother questions; she might take a friend or sibling along for comfort. The beauty of learning (and of development) is that there are almost always multiple pathways towards the same end.

There is no cause for fear when parents are nurturing, environments are safe, and learning is encouraged. There is no cause for fear, too, if you have not yet internalized evaluations of character that lead you to play it safe (“not good at swimming” or “such a good reader”). So, sadly, we also understand that, when these basic conditions are not met, even very young children can be held back by fear

3. Take one step at a time

If we look at what captures children’s curiosity the most, we see the developmental psychologists’ favorite “U-shaped curve.” To a young child, the most interesting things are just moderately unusual or new, somewhat but not too different from what she already understands. Not so familiar, but not so far removed that it cannot be situated properly in relation to the familiar.

This is another, more subtle explanation for why children’s curiosity is immune to fear.  It lives in the safe middle distance between what is known and what is unknown. These are not risky leaps; they are small steps, taken one at a time.

4. Don’t just look forward, look around

Curiosity isn’t just for preschoolers. Babies, who cannot yet grasp objects in their hands, let alone crawl or walk, already show curiosity in both the direction and length of their attention.  They look towards what is moderately surprising over what is familiar. They don’t just sense. They search.

When they grow a bit, babies coordinate attention with exploration. In a recent study, Aimee Stahl and Lisa Feigenson from John’s Hopkins University showed 11-month-old babies a toy that either violated a physical law (defying gravity, for example) or a toy that looked the same but behaved in an expected way.  Later, the infants could choose to explore either the original toy, or a brand new toy.

They chose the same toy only when it violated the physical law. And they played around with the violation.  When they saw an object that seemed to float rather than fall, they dropped the object over and over again. When they saw an object that seemed to pass through a solid wall, they banged the object against the table over and over again.

So even babies remain persistently curious about familiar things when there is still something to be learned.  Like preschoolers, they explore to learn about the world.  And it all starts by looking around.

5. Ask questions

It may seem that from the time children can ask questions, a faucet turns on that won’t turn off.  The endless repetition of “Why…?” seems to be a clever plot devised to drive a parent crazy.  But, despite what we might think at our least patient moments, these questions have a purpose. Like play and like looking around, they are aimed at satisfying a curiosity to learn.

Brandy Frazier, Susan Gelman and Henry Wellman at the University of Michigan looked at conversations between parents and children ages two to four.  They found that questions stop when children receive a good explanation, but persist when they don’t. Asking questions, for young children, is a form of conversational curiosity.

Children also direct questions appropriately to people who know. Melissa Koenig at the University of Minnesota and her colleagues have shown that 3- and 4-year-old children prefer to ask for information from someone who is usually right about things, not someone who is usually wrong.  They prefer the explanations of an expert to non-expert.

Children understand that knowledge lives in the minds of others, and they actively seek it out to when they need it. Importantly, when they are allowed to seek information actively, rather than receiving what happens to be given, they are more likely to retain what they learn.

6. Make learning new things more important than getting new stuff

In a recent study, Eva Rafetseder and Joseph Perner at the University of Salzburgh gave four-year-olds a choice to open up one of two boxes.  Both had candy inside.  Children chose a box, got some candy, then were asked to rate how they felt. Happy, of course.

Then they got to see what was in the other box, and the other box had much more candy. Adults and older children in a comparable situation feel regret – they report feeling worse after discovering that choosing the other box would have yielded more.

But four year olds don’t.  And it isn’t that they don’t understand the difference in quantity – they do.  It also isn’t because they don’t understand that they would have been even happier with more – they do.  And it isn’t that they don’t understand that it was their choice and they could have chosen the other box – they do.

By any measure, four-year-olds understand the situation perfectly well. So why don’t they experience regret?

If children’s choices are motivated chiefly by curiosity, then this phenomenon makes sense. Getting candy is fantastic, but the desire to know what is in each box may be more immediately important.  So, for four-year-olds, this task is a win/win – you get candy, and you also get to satisfy your curiosity about both boxes.

Relatedly, young children do not have enough experience – or enough of a coherent sense of themselves – to have formed strong preferences.  As they getting older these preferences develop, and the choice to act out of curiosity competes with the choice to obtain the objects of your desires.

But as long as the intrinsic reward of learning things outweighs the extrinsic reward of getting things, there are no regrets.

Concluding thoughts: Intellectual virtues are moral virtues

Last winter my family was on vacation in Costa Rica with friends. Much of our trip was spent driving in our rented car around windy, unmarked roads. We got lost.  A lot.

Our car came with a GPS. Still, each time we got lost, my friend rolled down the window and asked for directions. She had long chats in Spanish with whoever would stop to help.  We soon found the directions to be, well, less than effective. We were given descriptions of corner grocery stores, old trees, farm fences, even a reference to a group of wandering chickens.

So what if we didn’t get to our destination by the most direct route? People were kind, no one refused to help us, and conversations wandered to how our lovely children were enjoying themselves. These encounters gave me insight into Costa Rican cultural attitudes and values. My Spanish improved through the motivation to understand them. And, I found new reasons to admire my friend and travel companion; her openness, and her sense of adventure. All opportunities I would have missed had we relied on a GPS to get us around.

What if we abandon our GPS for a while? What if we let our actions be guided by curiosity rather than our preferences, internal frameworks, and maps?

Curiosity breeds open-mindedness.  Children discover things when they explore objects in new ways, but they also discover things when they approach new people; when they play with other children who don’t look like them, or talk like them, or do things same way as they do.

If we persist in our quest for information, or allow our attention to wander, or ask questions to which we don’t yet know the answers, we are allowing for the possibility of opening up our world. Maybe we will learn something we did not expect or set out to learn.  Maybe we will share experiences with people who are different from us. And as we do, perhaps we end up, through our curiosity, better people.

Discussion Questions:

1)    Does this description of children’s curiosity seem particularly special or different from later-developing curiosity? For example, does the risk-seeking (or sensation seeking) tendency of adolescence parallel the curiosity of babies and young children, or is it something quite different?

2)    What role does (or should) curiosity play in education?

3)    What is the trade-off (if any) between curiosity and the increasing refinement of existing knowledge and skills?

4)    Is curiosity related (necessarily or at all) to sociability and social openness?

5)    Is childlike curiosity something we can retain, or are we bound to lose it as we get older?

6)    As mentioned, we have some indication about conditions under which young children can lose their natural curiosity too early. Are their good ways to help them to regain it?

Discussion Summary

As young children, we are driven to learn about the world around us.  In my original post, I presented some examples showing how vital curiosity is for early learning.  I tried to argue that young children’s curiosity explains both persistent and exploratory behaviors. It influences how they observe, play, ask questions, and respond emotionally.

As we get older, does learning – and curiosity as a motivation for learning – lose importance?  The discussion comments suggest that it does not. It’s true that those of you who are drawn to this question, and especially those who commented on the post, might be a special, select group.  But I suspect that most of us have not stopped being curious, or trying to learn new things.  Maybe most of our time is spent living (and surviving) on the knowledge and skills that we already have.  Maybe the things that we are curious about change profoundly. But development doesn’t end at age five, so learning must to play a role in our lives at every age.

Several posts asked, and answered, the question of how to maintain curiosity throughout life in a healthy, balanced way.  One remarked that education might “kill” curiosity, but then showed how that curiosity could be rediscovered later in life. Another wondered about the role of parents in broadening children’s curiosity as they become teenagers and begin to settle into habits of their own.  Another brought up potential downsides of being too curious, and therefore not committing to learning any one thing deeply.  Several of the comments mentioned, rightly, the difficulty of identifying information seeking as distinct from sensation seeking, risk seeking, or general interest.

These complications raised in discussion show how, as we get older, curiosity competes with a host of other motivations.   As we age we gain knowledge, skills, and autonomy. We develop personal preferences.  We begin to focus on planning out and achieving goals. We seek pleasure and avoid displeasure.  In the process, we seem to loose our childlike openness to things off of our beaten path.

While working on this piece, I was reminded of a teacher of mine who advocated learning one new thing every day.  I started to wonder, do I really do this? I’m lucky to be in a profession that encourages learning new things, asking questions, and making use of my curiosity for the good of others. Even so, many days go by routines – wake up, coffee, kids to school, work, exercise, dinner, bedtime, repeat. So, after writing this and participating in this discussion, I’m resolved to insert one “what if?” or “I wonder” or “why does..?” into each day, and see what happens.

New Big Questions:

  1. How can we maintain curiosity throughout life in a healthy, balanced way?
  2. Is learning a moral virtue?