Wednesday, July 11, 2018

You can stimulate curiosity for self directed learning

This morning I cycled in the sun to a school for higher eduction to a look back at a fun and successful project. A team of teachers and staff have organized a SPOC (Small Private Online Course), supported by me and Sibrenne from Ennuonline. Within the SPOC, on the Curatr platform, sources like short video clips or cartoons were shared as conversation starters on topics such as classroom atmosphere, structure, variety in lessons and attention to individual students. The innovative thing is that the focus is on exchange and learning from each other and not on learning new knowledge, more "how do you do that in your class and what can I do better?" Some 30 eager teachers were very active. It was noticeable that this is a well-known group, a group of knowmads who are curious and want to invest in their own professionalization and are able to self direct their learning activities. One of the teachers told me that she would get bored during the holidays after a few weeks and then engage in some distance education. At the same time, there is a group of lecturers who seem to invest less in their own professional development. 

For this type of online learning you need a certain level of capacity for self direction. 

How to stimulate the second group who will not spontaneously engage in a SPOC? How to stimulate self directed learning? 

Is everybody (unconsciously) a knowmad?

Accoding to Forbes there is a strong relationship between learning and happiness on the job.
"There's a strong positive relationship between how much people learn on the job and how much they love their job"
This shows that with a high level of learning in the workplace, the knife cuts both ways: innovation is evident and the professional is also happy. It raises (again) the question whether every professional has an intrinsic motivation to develop and learn. Or are some just happy to run the same lessons for years? In other words: is self directed learning for everyone? This is a question which keeps coming back to me. Can you encourage professionals to learn formally or informally? The crux may well be in curiosity.

Curiosity: the book 

In his book Why? What makes us curious by Mario Livio curiosity is analyzed in depth. A simple definition of curiosity is: the desire to know why, what and how. It is a craving for information. Everyone is curious, although the degree of curiosity varies from person to person. In Why, the lives of Leonardo da Vinci and Richard Feynman are described as examples of extremely inquisitive persons. Feynman even seems to have been lying in a coma on his deathbed and said: "This dying is boring, I would not want to do it again!" Curiosity is a feeling: it can be a feeling of excitement (for discovering something new) but it can also be a feeling of discomfort or even fear. To a certain extent, uncertainty about a subject leads to curiosity, but if the uncertainty becomes too great, it can become so overwhelming that it feels uncomfortable. If something is totally overpowered, the uncertainty can become so great that people would rather avoid the subject than dive into it. This reminds me of a question Ger Driesen asked a few years ago: do we need to feel pain in order to learn?

What makes us curious? - excitement versus anxiety

Litman states that curiosity can emerge from two different emotions, an action to reduce a sense of insecurity, or an intrinsically motivated state of excitement to get to know something new. An example of the first one is reading the sign of an animal in the zoo when you feel stupid that you do not know this animal. The second may be my feeling of excitement when I discover a new tool. Furthermore, we become more curious when we know something about a subject and discover that there is more knowledge than when we do not know anything about a subject. Whether something arouses curiosity has also been studied by Berlyne: it depends on novelty, complexity, uncertainty and conflict.

  • New may be a new phenomenon such as a new species
  • Complex is when something follows an unexpected pattern
  • Uncertainty is when you can not predict the outcome
  • Conflict is the fact that new information is contradictory to old information, this makes you feel 'ignorant' and to remove that feeling you will look for additional information

Two different types of curiosity 

To be curious you do not have to be good at mathematics or the arts, but a condition seems to be the capacity to process information. There is a difference between perceptual curiosity and epistemic curiosity. Perceptual curiosity is curiosity triggered by things that happen around you that are different than expected, eg the curiosity of a class of children who get a new pupil in the classroom. It can also be a situation that you do not fully understand. Epistemic curiosity is a desire for knowledge and knowing, the driving force behind science. Furthermore, you can distinguish diversive (broad interest) and specific (looking for specific information) curiosity. An example of diversive curiosity is, for example, checking your phone for new messages. You are not looking for specific information but are curious about something. Berlyne hence put this diagram with four quadrants together.


Interesting: brain research has revealed that these two types of curiosity reside in different parts of the brain.

Strategies to satisfy curiosity: overview and from easy to difficult

Jacqueline Gottlieb has researched the strategies of the brain to satisfy curiosity through open exploration. 52 people were asked to choose a short computer game to play. There were two different series of games and the level of difficulty varied. The strategies of the 52 people were strikingly similar: they started with the easiest games and proceeded to the more difficult ones. In addition, they looked for an overview of all games. The games from medium to high degree of difficulty were played several times. Interesting for epistemic curiosity: people like to see the whole landscape. This phenomenon is called 'knowledge-based intrinsic motivation'.

You can learn to be curious or stimulate people to be curious

What is my conclusion? That every professional is curious, but the extent to someone is curious may vary. What I learned from reading Why is the focus on emotion. Ask people what they are curious for in their work, what new information makes them feel excited? What makes you feel uncertain in your work? This is a different set of questions than: what would you like to learn?

You can actually trigger curiosity in professionals and I believe with curiosity comes self directed learning, provided people have the information processing capacities. If you look at Berlyne, the perceptual curiosity is easier to stimulate than epistemic. Examples:

  • Introduce something completely new, for example a new theory or a new technology that will be of influence
  • Present data that shows an unexpected pattern. An example of this approach is benchlearning
  • Let professionals put their teeth into a wicked problem, a challenge for which the outcome is unpredictable  
  • Look for information that is contradictory to what people believe in the organization
  • Encourage curiosity. 
A side idea: after reading this book I got a huge question mark doubting the usefulness of adaptive learning systems: within these systems, the learner will automatically receive new information or assignments. From the need to get an overview of the whole field (from easy to difficult) this can be rather frustrating. It coincides with a remark that I heard from users, that they would like to know what the subjects are that they have not received (because of the fact that the content was adapted or personalized for them).

Overall, it reassured me that everybody has a native type of curiosity and that with the right stimuli this can lead to self directed learning.