Intellectual Curiosity and Academic Performance in K-5 and Beyond
Dr. Amanda Strawhacker & Dr. Amanda Sullivan
Young children are naturally curious about the world around them. They ask questions and have a strong desire to learn. It is crucial that parents, family members, and educators foster children’s curiosity and encourage them to keep asking questions as they grow up. Nurturing students' intellectual curiosity can support critical thinking, help boost academic performance, and prepare them for success in the classroom and beyond. Let's take a closer look at how intellectual curiosity can foster academic performance, and how this can benefit students beyond the school years.
What is Academic Performance and Why Does it Matter?
Academic performance is a combination of things like grades, standardized test scores, extracurricular involvement, and student leadership. In addition to reflecting the knowledge students have learned in class, academic performance is linked to safe health practices, positive emotions, and strong relationships with peers and family members.
Since the 1800s, educators and employers have used school performance as a way to predict aptitude for life and career success. Academic achievement has even become a proxy to measure a child’s general intelligence, since tests of things like memory, attention, and problem-solving can be challenging to implement or meaningfully interpret. Academic performance has long been seen as an easy way to capture a student’s ability and preparedness for work and life responsibilities.
Today, academic performance remains an important metric to predict students’ later success in school, employment, and life. Research on achievement testing confirms that academic performance is partly correlated with intelligence scores, but intelligence alone is not enough to prepare a child for life ahead. We all know stories of gifted students who do not succeed in school, or hard-working students who excel despite average test scores. So what other habits do high-performing students display, and how can we help prepare all students for their best chance at success?
Intellectual Curiosity and Academic Performance in K-12
Researcher Sophie von Stumm of the University of Edinburgh in the UK wanted to understand what personality traits students have that contribute to academic success. She explored 200 studies of over 50,000 students applying for college and professional school, and her results revealed something surprising. The trends show curiosity is as important as intelligence in predicting students’ success in school. Intellectual curiosity, or having a “hungry mind” that loves exploration and answering questions, has as much impact on test scores and grades as raw effort. In fact, having both a strong work ethic and a curious mind leads to just as positive rates of academic success as high intelligence alone.
Aspects of curiosity like joy of discovery, eagerness to learn new things, and motivation to seek answers to the unknown go hand-in-hand with important learning traits of persistence, imagination, and inventiveness. That may explain why higher curiosity is linked to higher math and literacy achievement regardless of a student’s gender or their ability to focus and work hard. This link may be even more impactful for children whose families come from lower-income backgrounds, meaning intellectual curiosity may help close socioeconomic status (SES)-based school achievement gaps.
Supporting Curiosity for Academic Success
There are many recommendations about effort and hard work to improve academic performance, but very few designed specifically to grow children’s curiosity. Now that we know that curiosity is just as important for learning, how can we help children strengthen their curiosity muscles?
Starting in K-5, adults can set the foundation for curiosity by modeling and encouraging questions. You can encourage questions during lessons by sharing question starters and inviting children to fill in their own questions. Question starters help children focus on curiosity-driven questions about how something works, or figuring out something they don’t yet know (these might start with “I wonder…?” or “How/Why…?”). . You might also set up a question parking lot or wonder wall to gather questions throughout the day.
One easy way to spark curiosity is to change up the routine! New questions usually come from new experiences, so plan to visit a new museum or playground, explore a new website or app together, or try a new activity or schedule in the classroom. Resources like PebbleGo, for example, can be a great resource for sparking curiosity through large group or individual exploration. PebbleGo offers child-friendly articles, videos, games, and more for children to answer questions and make discoveries about topics they are curious about.
Remember that children may be anxious about trying new things, so give plenty of reminders about any new experiences that are coming up in future weeks. Help students create adventure diaries to track new experiences, remind children of things they can already do that used to feel new and overwhelming, and incorporate brain breaks with familiar activities as well. Most importantly, don’t forget to save questions that come up during new experiences to discuss later. This can spark new investigations into things children are curious about!
Intellectual Curiosity over a Lifetime: Later Schooling and Adulthood
The sad reality is that as children grow into teenagers, we see a drop in curiosity – and all kinds of socio-emotional skills, like optimism, trust, energy, and sociability. Lately, this global trend goes beyond normal teenage social anxiety, and is even more critical to address during the post-pandemic age, when many teens have been experiencing stress, isolation, and even trauma. You’ve probably heard alarm bells about learning loss and academic achievement gaps, but the lack of curiosity-focused pedagogy in schools is just as concerning.
The good news is that by fostering intellectual curiosity, even during the adolescent years when other academic topics may be our immediate focus, we may be able to help mitigate achievement gaps. More importantly, we can set students up with a successful mindset for lifelong learning and growth, with lasting benefits for career and the workplace.
Tips for Educators
Curiosity is shown to support students’ academic achievement, in K-12 and beyond. A hungry mind can help learners with grades and test scores, as well as socio-emotional skills of perseverance and relationship-building. Educators can support curiosity and academic performance by welcoming questions during class time, incorporating open exploration in lesson activities, and modeling joy and motivation to discover answers to the unknown. Educators may consider implementing these practices in their classrooms:
- Make time for questions - Time is always a challenge in the school day, but questions are an important part of learning. Set aside regular daily or weekly lesson time to let students ask or reflect on questions that have been sparked by your activities. 5 minutes of dedicated questioning or reflecting time at the beginning of a lesson is easy to include, and ensures you won’t forget to save time for questions later on. Questions may seem off-topic or too complex to tackle in class, but remember that learning happens beyond the classroom, too. Question-asking during school (even when you don’t get to explore the answers together) is great practice for students to engage in their own investigations outside of class time.
- Use the outdoors to inspire curiosity - There are countless wonders in the worlds of biology, ecology, and wildlife! Let children freely explore natural environments to grow their powers of observation and curiosity. Check out free activities like these K-8 science activities from Cornell University, or entire K-12 nature curricula from organizations like the Audubon Society, the US Forest Service, Scholastic, and more.
- Spark questions with information sources - Use nonfiction resources like PebbleGo for students in grades K-2 to access articles, games, videos, and more on a range of topics covering 5 academic subjects (Animals, Health, Science, Social Studies, and Biographies) to help guide your students' exploration. Continue the learning with PebbleGo Next for grades 3-5!
- Games and podcasts - Children’s podcasts, or card games can spark questions and foster curiosity about different academic topics.
- Inspire curiosity beyond traditional class time - Non-academic times like lunch, free play, and outdoor recess offer a great opportunity to support children’s authentic question asking without the “rules” of school to hinder their thinking. Model how to ask non-judgemental questions with sentence starters like “I’m curious about…” and “I wonder…”. If children are curious about other classmates, such as cultural backgrounds or personal preferences, remember to foster kindness, acceptance, and inclusion in these sensitive conversations.
Want to learn more about supporting academic success through curiosity? Check out the following resources:
- PebbleGo and Pebble Go Next (Need help getting started? Check out these YouTube tutorials)
- Curiosity: The Heart of Lifelong Learning
- The SEL Skills That May Matter Most for Academic Success: Curiosity and Persistence
- 13 Simple Ways to Encourage Students to Ask Questions in Class
This is the third post in an exciting blog series all about fostering curiosity in K-5 and beyond. Let us know what you want to see on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using #PGCuriosity. Be sure to tag the authors of this post too!
Dr. Amanda Sullivan - Twitter @AASully, Instragram: @keikisullivan
Dr. Amanda Strawhacker - Twitter @ALStrawhacker, Instagram: @ALStrawhacker
Together: Twitter @theDrsAmanda