Natural Curiosity and Motivation: Are We Off Base?

  • Posted on: 7 January 2014
  • By: Tina McCoy

If you are like me, you tend to believe that people, especially children, are naturally curious and 'hard wired' to learn.  A mismatch between the way students learn and the traditional structure of schooling is a likely scapegoat when students are unmotivated or unable to demonstrate learning.  However, in the first Chapter (Why don't students like learning at school?) of their book, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, Hattie and Yates concisely explain the reality of human curiosity and motivation to learn.  The information has great implications for teaching and learning.

Based on research, the authors assert that humans are not naturally curious.  Rather their curiosity is influenced by the discrepancy between their current knowledge base and the new knowledge or skills that they 'should' attend to.  In short, people will seek out and pay attention in an effort to close manageable gaps between what they know and what they do not know.  However, if the gap between their own knowledge and what is 'to be learned' is too great, they will not tend to be curious or motivated to take up the subject and work to learn the material. Human beings are motivated to learn when they see that there are relevant knowledge gaps that they believe they can reasonably close by some means.  Therefore, the more background knowledge one has, the more curious and motivated a person will be to learn.

This information has incredible implications for society and the field of education (at all levels). It brings to mind an image of the 'snowball effect', where the intellectually 'rich get richer', and those who have had little opportunity to build their background knowledge get further and further behind.  This underscores the dire need for quality early childhood education; not just a narrow, therapeutic education but also a well-rounded education that incorporates diverse and meaningful, hands-on experiences.  It also illustrates the need for students of all ages to receive an enriching and balanced education that continually builds background knowledge.  

The ramifications for struggling students are huge.  First, the practice of 'pulling' students from class for remedial instruction could be creating as many problems as it is intended to alleviate.  When students miss instruction that is needed to build their background knowledge, gaps can form and grow even in areas of relative strength. As time goes by, they will increasingly be at a disadvantage because of the gaps that have increased in size until they adversely impact learning and motivation. Second, the need for appropriate instructional adjustments cannot be overstated.  If students are motivated to learn by 'filling in' smaller gaps in their learning, then adjustments (accommodations or modifications) that put learning within reach are an essential part of quality teaching.   

The chapter referenced above is an amazing seven, reader-friendly pages of relevant information.  In it, Hattie and Yates also articulate issues pertinent to education such as the human tendency to rely on memory and the reluctance to engage in 'deep thinking'. If teachers are tasked to promote and facilitate more critical thinking in students (as required by the Common Core State Standards), they will need to take the research on human learning into account and change they way they instruct students.  

We can improve teaching by incorporating research-base practices if we strive to be in sync with the realities of human learning.  The current state of education situation reminds me of a documentary I watched just yesterday, where scientists explained that despite the many advances of society, the human brain has not changed for 50,000 years.  Perhaps our brains are not as advanced as we would like to believe, but we can still use what we know about ourselves to let go of inaccurate assumptions and assimilate new information about learning. I encourage you to read this chapter yourself and share your own comments and perspectives on the content.  It would be great to hear other thoughts on these important matters.