The very best teaching strategy is (are you curious?)

Anyone who has ever taught knows that when a class full of students gets curious about a topic at the same time, magic can happen. Teaching suddenly becomes much easier and the teacher finds himself in the enviable position by just riding on that wave of curiosity and enthusiasm. We hear a lot about being a “guide on the side” instead of “the sage on stage”, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds. However, when the curiosity is present to a large extent, it is simple to become a guide on the site. You just surface their questions, point them in the right direction and get out of the way.

All this, of course, is wonderful, and the teacher’s life is certainly much easier when students are curious and engaged. But it’s not all about us, the teachers. The line below is as always student learning. So the question becomes, “does curiosity not only lead to engagement, but also to learning?” And new neuroscientific research says, “Yes, absolutely!” In fact, research suggests that not only do students learn the material they are curious about, but they are also likely to learn well others material in the same lesson (where they are less curious) just because they are in a curious state.

The results … Surprising and not so surprising

First, let’s look at that research. In a study published in the scientific journal neuron (1), researchers put subjects in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, then had them look at a number of trivia questions and judge how curious they were to find out the answers to these questions. The motifs were then shown selected questions again at a time, followed by a 14-second delay, and then displayed the answers. During the delay between the question and the answer, subjects were shown a picture of a neutral face.

Subjects were later given two samples. I bet you can see the first coming. That’s right, the researchers tested subjects on their recall of the trivia responses again after leaving the MRI scanner and then tested them again on the answers the next day. What they found was probably not surprising to any of us – that subjects had significantly better recall of questions and answers, which they initially said they were more curious about. This finding shows what we have all experienced in the classroom – students learn material better if they are curious about it (a form of intrinsic motivation).

But that’s not all the scientists did. They also gave test subjects a surprise test on faces which was presented in delayed time between questions and answers. And here is where the surprising part comes in. The subjects also had significantly better recall of the faces presented during questions as they were more curious. In other words, simply being in a state of curiosity had an “overload effect” that helped subjects learn material (the faces) that they were not curious about and that they did not even know they would be tested!

But what happens biologically here? The researchers explained in their conclusions that when looking at the brain images of test subjects, they found increased activity in two important brain areas. First, they found increased activity in the brain’s reward circuitry, an area that relies on dopamine. It seems that the intrinsic motivation provided by curiosity actually stimulates the part of the brain that is heavily involved in concrete, extrinsic motivation. Second, they found increased activity in the hippocampus, the key brain area responsible for the formation of new memories (learning). And not only were these two important brain areas stimulated, but the researchers also found increased interaction between the two areas.

“So curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state where you are more likely to learn and preserve information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance,” says Charan Ranganath, the study’s senior author, who is a professor at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and the Department of Psychology.

A classroom example

“OK,” you might say, “it’s cool and all, but how can I use this information in the classroom?” Fair enough. Let’s take a look at a class example and I think you’ll see why I’m so excited about the results of this study.

I use an example from Jeffrey Wilhelm’s book Engaging readers and authors with inquiry: Promoting deep understanding of language arts and content areas with guiding questions (2). This is a great book for any teacher, but especially for language arts teachers. As you can tell from the title, it is about how to transform the units in your curriculum into study units using guiding questions about which students are curious as entry points to the units.

The specific example I want to use is a model device on Romeo and Juliet that Wilhelm details. I can almost hear you moaning through my computer screen as I write this! Yes, Romeo and Juliet, the thorn in the side of every ninth grade in America. I think you probably agree with me (either from your experiences reading the play as a student, or your experiences having to teach it) that the student’s motivation to enter this unit usually is not very high, at least if the teacher uses some of the more traditional approaches to teaching the piece.

But Wilhelm does not teach it in the traditional way. In fact, the unity with which he teaches Romeo and Juliet is not even called Romeo and Juliet Unity – it’s called the Relationship Unit. That’s because the whole unit is structured as a study of what makes relationships work or fail, with the guide questions to the unit: “What is a good relationship?” and “What factors are destroying or threatening relationships?” Do you think these are questions your typical ninth grade wants the answers to? You bet! In fact, a good portion of their waking life (and even their dreams) revolves around their relationship with those they are currently in love with, or at least lust for. Needless to say, curiosity is high.

Before students even get to read Romeo and Juliet as the unit’s core text, they spend time reading other short, contemporary texts about relationships, discussing relationships in small groups, writing about their own relationships, playing roles for relationship counselors, etc. All of these activities lead to their reading of the play and in ultimately to their final projects that include choices such as writing a review agreement (or pre-dating agreement) to promote a good relationship, creating an interactive relationship quiz or computer game that promotes understanding of good relationships, or creating a video documentary on views on good relationships in different cultures over time.

What about reading the piece itself? Well, with the piece now positioned as the core text of the larger study, it no longer looks to students as a huge task they somehow have to fight through. Instead, they may be asked, midway through the play, to write an argument about what constitutes a good relationship, using evidence from the play in addition to other texts and their own experiences. To understand what the text says about relationships, they obviously need to learn how to work out Shakespeare’s language, vocabulary and literary devices, but they work willingly through these challenges because it all serves to find answers to questions as they are curious about.

To bring it all together

Let’s finish by going back to the study cited earlier. Remember, there were basically two findings: (1) people learn better when curious about the answers, and (2) people when in a state of curiosity also learn other information better, including information about, as they are less curious.

Let’s tie it together Romeo and Juliet example. There is very important information about conditions in the unit, and this is material that the vast majority of ninth graders are curious about. All the information about conditions is thus, along with the survey that finds number one – students will remember a higher percentage of this material than usual because they are curious about it.

But don’t forget the second find! There is still a lot of material students have to learn about Shakespeare, his language and his world that comes up while reading Romeo and Juliet. Students also need to learn this material so they can find out what Shakespeare says about relationships. And even though most ninth-graders are determined does not curious about this material, they will learn it much better because they are already in a state of curiosity generated by the framing of the unit’s guiding questions. Talk about a win-win!

Your turn now

So now is the time to place you on the spot. Can you think of a unit in your curriculum that contains important information that students really need to learn but are not really curious about? (I bet you can think of at least one example.) Can you recreate that device to become a study of a leading question or two that your students would be very curious about?

If so, go for it! It will change the whole experience of this device, both for you and your students. If you are hesitant, remember that the scientific study cited here shows that curiosity not only enhances learning of the information that students are curious about, but also improves learning of all the other information in your device, about which students are not typically as curious.

And if that’s not enough for you, let me quote Jeffrey Wilhelm about what happened when he made this change in his teaching about Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo and Juliet is a standard 9th grade requirement. I have been teaching and turning it off for more than 20 years as a major piece of literature. Funny thing is, until I changed my method, my students never danced in the hallways or rinsed with enthusiasm over dear William’s words. In fact, they would often refuse to read it, give up in frustration, and declare it boring. Some would sneak off and read Cliff’s Notes or Spark Notes.

“I went ahead and counted their opposition to ‘kids these days,’ I suppose. I would plow through the piece from beginning to end, just like a kind of salesman who throws a product where I often explained the line-by-line and scene-by-scene for my students.

“The tide turned as I began to re-create my teaching units around essential issues. In fact, this changed everything. I can hardly describe the improvement that occurred in my motivation, my instructional sequences, and my students’ interest in learning.”

That says pretty much everything. If you haven’t focused on creating an atmosphere of curiosity as a key ingredient in your lessons and devices, now is the time to start. After all, curiosity may have killed the cat, but it definitely brings learning to life!


1. Gruber, M. J., B. D. Gelman, & C. Ranganath. (October 22, 2014). Curative states modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486-496.

2. Wilhelm, J. (2007). Engaging readers and authors with inquiry: Promoting deep understanding in the language arts and content areas with guiding questions. New York, NY: Scholastic.