September 20, 2017

Cultivating Curiosity in Libraries

Photo credit: DragonImages

Photo credit: DragonImages

Teachers and those who study learning have long known that curiosity is important to the learning process and better outcomes. But what causes it, how to encourage it, and even how to define it have proved the concept more complicated than it first appears. Now, recent studies suggest that the desire to know more may be quantifiable, which could provide librarians and other educators with new tools for leveraging curiosity to improve how people process and relate to information.

“Measuring curiosity has historically been problematic,” Marilyn Plavocos Arnone, a professor at Syracuse University’s iSchool who has studied methods for fostering curiosity, told LJ. “And yet, we know it when we see it. We know it is something we want our kids to have.”

This desire may only become more pressing now that professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues at Yale Law School’s Cultural Cognition Project have found that scientific curiosity—rather than science knowledge per se—is the key to overcoming cognitive biases in evaluating new information. In our current political landscape, in which what constitutes a fact or a reliable news report has itself become a highly controversial question, this is an important finding—and particularly that reduced cognitive bias does not, as is often assumed, correlate with better reasoning skills.

In fact, it can be just the opposite. “Perversely, people become more polarized on highly contested issues—like climate change—as they become more proficient at critical reasoning,” Kahan told LJ. “This effect is counteracted to a significant degree among people who are highly curious about science.”

Data from the study suggests this might be the case because people who are curious about science for its own sake may be more willing to seek out—and importantly, to accept the validity of—information that isn’t compatible with the predispositions they bring to the table.

In a recent paper in the journal Advances in Political Psychology, Kahan and his coauthors describe scientific curiosity as “the desire to learn what science knows solely for the pleasure of knowing or understanding it, as opposed to the desire to learn for some practical end or goal,” and introduce a scale for measuring it.

“It’s important because being curious makes you want to understand views that may be different from the ones you hold,” says Arnone. “In today’s political and information landscape, that is a valuable asset.”

Creating a Curiosity Zone

So how can librarians, information professionals, and other educators help cultivate curiosity in the communities they serve? Unfortunately, says Kahan, that’s a question people have been asking for a long time, and has largely gotten filed under the heading “Easier Said Than Done.”

One reason for that is that while many young people start out curious, many have classroom experiences that actually teach them not to ask questions.

“We see this in classrooms and social life alike. There are kinds of questions we’re allowed to ask, and kinds we’re not,” says Arjun Shankar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice and the Center for Curiosity. “And when students who exhibit a very diverse type of curiosity can’t satiate that curiosity, they lose it over time.”

There are ways that educators and librarians can help ensure they field questions that go off the beaten path, though—and the critical thinking those queries encourage.

One method Shankar and his colleagues have used is Curiosity Boxes—suggestion boxes that gather kids’ questions about lessons over the course of a week, and give educators a chance to field a few of them in a wrap-up session. Not only does this encourage curiosity, it also helps to involve kids who may not be the most likely to raise their hands during a lecture or lesson.

Outside of the classroom, librarians can help people of all ages to stay curious by giving them the skills and tools they need to discover satisfying—and accurate—answers to their questions.

“Without those skills, people can become frustrated and withdraw from exploration before ever finding an answer. With them, they can remain in the zone until their curiosity is resolved,” says Arnone. “Librarians are the ones who can teach them the information literacy skills they need to remain in a zone of curiosity.”

But staying in a zone isn’t the end goal—ideally educators want people’s sense of curiosity to continue to grow. And that’s another place that librarians can make a difference, says Shankar.

“If one wants to become more curious generally speaking, you have to be able to see connections between a question you ask and other things in the world,” says Shankar. “Getting people to see those connections is a great way to develop curiosity, and one that is not being pushed enough. That’s a place where librarians are really well placed to make a difference.”

For more on encouraging curiosity in an academic library context, see the recent In the Library with the Lead Pipe article Sparking Curiosity—Librarians’ Role in Encouraging Exploration by Anne-Marie Deitering and Hannah Gascho Rempel, which suggests partnering with faculty to change the language used to discuss the research process, recognizing the role affect plays on students’ research behaviors, building in multiple opportunities and rewards for broad exploration of ideas and sources (particularly early in the research process, even before a topic is chosen), and providing prompts for students to reflect on how curiosity influences the way they think about research.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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