"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious" – Albert Einstein.
One of my favourite things about teaching is seeing students excited, interested and enthusiastic to learn. During my 15 years of teaching, I have mostly been in the Early Years and this is where I learnt the importance of effective provocations and prompting curiosity in children.
What is a provocation?
Provocations can take many forms, whether it is a huge, global issue such as plastic in our oceans, a collection of natural materials left on a table or simply an interesting photograph. Some of the words associated with learning-based provocations are curiosity, thought provoking, questioning, ideas, inspires, enthuse, wonder, interests, open-ended, investigation, passion and critical thinking.
An article for Edutopia (2019) notes that ‘In a concept-based curriculum, effective provocations provide students with ownership over their learning as well as inspiring them to delve deeper. It can impact their self-image by children seeing themselves as capable, responsible, successful’.
Kath Murdoch (2015) states that sometimes the best way to provide students with a provocation is ‘to say very little and to simply place the provocation somewhere in the room and wait for the students to notice and begin talking about it’. Provocations are not a new idea in education, but their effective use can instil great value to a student’s learning.
Dinosaur eggs have been one of my favourite and most successful provocations. I have used them in several schools with a variety of students. One time as I was using this provocation in class, one of the papier mâché dinosaur eggs began to move, the children stared down with excitement, curiosity and wonder and screamed “It’s hatching”. My partner teacher and I looked at each other in absolute bewilderment, wondering how this could be possible. The children ran back to the classroom to fetch tape, paper, pens, books and other resources they needed to secure the area. They wanted to make warning posters and investigate the type of eggs they could be. We discovered that it was in fact a small frog buried under one of the eggs that was causing it to move.
Incidental provocations often occur in a classroom setting. Recently, a letter card fell on to the outside window ledge. Every morning, two of the students would excitedly come into the classroom to explore new ways in which they could rescue the card. Whilst they were able to take controlled risks (we had discussions around the health and safety elements of some of their more elaborate ideas), they also experienced trial and error, teamwork, communication and innovation, by attaching materials to make gadgets, which in turn inspired others to contribute ideas and to join in with the adventure of trying to retrieve the card. After several weeks of trying, it was decided that after much determination and resilience, it was time to ask for help. They enlisted support from our Head of School and JLL team who successfully created their own device and safely returned the card.
Unfortunately, provocations are often neglected or used sparingly in today’s content heavy classrooms. The Curiosity Approach (2019) states that ‘Children need to be educated following a child’s innate urge to be curious and investigate, to seek out answers for themselves and not be handed the answers by well-meaning adults’.
In the Early Years, practitioners expertly create opportunities for open-ended provocations. Led by the students’ interests, they enhance their learning across many areas of the curriculum. Often this is seen as ‘just playing’ but involves many life-long skills, experiences and opportunities to ignite curiousness within children. This develops their ability to ask complex questions and build understanding around concepts, challenge their preconceived ideas and move learning forward. Rutger Bregman (2020) states that ‘When kids take part in play, they think for themselves, they take risks, colour outside the lines and in the process train their minds and motivation’. By observing children’s engagement and interactions, practitioners provide opportunities to understand what they are learning, tackle misconceptions and inform future learning. How does this move students learning on? By igniting their curiosity!
Once I had acknowledged the important impact curiosity has on our lives, the more I became conscious of it on a daily basis.
What is curiosity?
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. Thomas Edison
There are many different definitions of curiosity. Marianne Stenger’s (2014) research concludes that ‘A neurological study has shown that curiosity makes our brains more receptive for learning, and that as we learn, we enjoy the sensation of learning’.
During a recent yoga session, I participated in, the instructor suggested to the class that we should become curious about the pose that we were holding. Had she not said this, I would never have pushed myself out of my comfort zone and attempted a more difficult position. Having been successful, I was motivated to continue exploring new poses and finding out just what my body is capable of. Similar to the children’s learning, if they possess curiosity, they are intrinsically motivated and feel successful in their learning, prompting them to take more risks and become enthused by personal challenges.
Why is curiosity important?
An article reviewed by Francesca Gino (2018), states ‘When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more creative solutions’.
Britni Danielle (2017) quotes Dr Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist and anthropologist, as saying, ‘Curiosity, asking questions, not getting the right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake and not giving up and learning patience. It was all there when I was 4 and a half’. I realised whilst looking at the work of Jane Goodall with my class during International Women’s Day that the children could relate to this as they became curious about her work with chimpanzees, asking many relevant questions.
Curiosity and play and a love of animals, that’s all you really need for a wonderful childhood. Jane Goodall
Why should children remain curious?
According to Guy Claxton (2018), ‘It is the feeling of curiosity that makes learning attractive. Babies and toddlers are incredibly curious - they are drawn to things that are just out of reach, physically and cognitively’. Similarly, Spencer Harrison and Jon Cohen (2018) note that four year olds ask around 300 questions a day. This then decreases as children become older. Should open-ended provocations then become more of a focus as children proceed in their learning experience and enter Junior School and beyond? Research by Lizzie Price (2021) argues that in successful Early Years settings, children come through these early stages curious, independent and invested in their own education. ‘These children have the beginnings of something more valuable than the ability to decode. They have the beginnings of a learner’s or beginner’s mindset’. Edutopia (2019) also suggests that because they experience provocations, ‘children get to express who they are as learners. They have autonomy over their learning and changes their self-image. They see themselves as capable, responsible, successful’.
I believe that provocations and the development of curiosity in children are key to their success in becoming life-long learners. This is also the consensus at Dulwich College (Singapore), ‘At two years of age, a child believes anything is possible. We believe they should never stop thinking that way.’
As adults, we encounter provocations all of the time which provokes wonder, leads to questioning and often problem-solving. What ignites your curiosity?
Bregman, R. (2020). Human Kind, A Hopeful History. London. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Claxton, G. (2018). The Learning Power Approach, Teaching Learners to Teach Themselves.
Danielle, B. (2017). Jane Goodall Makes A Simple Case For Encouraging Kids to Be Curious. https://www.good.is/education/jane-goodall-startalk
Edutopia (2019). Wooranna Park Primary School: Sparking Curiosity With Self-Directed Learning. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vGXmGazJE
Gino, F. (2018). Why Curiosity Matters: The Business Case for Curiosity. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-business-case-for-curiosity
Harrison, S and Cohen, J. (2018). Curiosity Is Your Super Power. TEDxLosGatos. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZJwMYeE9Ak&t=298s
Hellyn, L and Bennett, S (2019). The Curiosity Approach https://www.thecuriosityapproach.com
Murdoch, K. (2015). The Power of Inquiry. Australia. Seastar Education.
Price, L. (2021). Why every teacher should spend a term in early years. Retrieved from https://www.tes.com/news/why-every-teacher-should-spend-term-early-years
Stenger, M. (2014). Brain Based Learning: Why Curiosity Enhances Learning. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/why-curiosity-enhances-learning-marianne-stenger