The Zone of Proximal Curiosity

Gardner Campbell has a great piece at Campus Technology that asks the following question:

What if we took another tack, specifying that students should not only remember information but also demonstrate increased curiosity?

I have enormous sympathy for this line of inquiry. In this post, I’m going to cover why I think it’s so important, how educating for curiosity interacts with other sorts of educational goals, and how we might begin to encourage it.

Curiosity Makes You Smarter

In a recent article, Scientific American‘s Andrea Kuszewski discusses research showing that a person’s intelligence can be improved through certain kinds of intellectual work:

I’m talking about increasing your fluid intelligence, or your capacity to learn new information, retain it, then use that new knowledge as a foundation to solve the next problem, or learn the next new skill, and so on.

Now, while working memory is not synonymous with intelligence, working memory correlates with intelligence to a large degree. In order to generate successfully intelligent output, a good working memory is pretty important. So to make the most of your intelligence, improving your working memory will help this significantly—like using the very best and latest parts to help a machine to perform at its peak.

The take-home points from this research? This study is relevant because they discovered:

1. Fluid intelligence is trainable.

2. The training and subsequent gains are dose-dependent—meaning, the more you train, the more you gain.

3. Anyone can increase their cognitive ability, no matter what your starting point is.

4. The effect can be gained by training on tasks that don’t resemble the test questions.

Note the last point. It is possible to improve intelligence, but not through standardized testing. How? Kuszewski talks about five principles, the first of which is Seek Novelty:

It is no coincidence that geniuses like Einstein were skilled in multiple areas, or polymaths, as we like to refer to them. Geniuses are constantly seeking out novel activities, learning a new domain. It’s their personality.

There is only one trait out of the “Big Five” from the Five Factor Model of personality (Acronym: OCEAN, or Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism) that correlates with IQ, and it is the trait of Openness to new experience. People who rate high on Openness are constantly seeking new information, new activities to engage in, new things to learn—new experiences in general [2].

When you seek novelty, several things are going on. First of all, you are creating new synaptic connections with every new activity you engage in. These connections build on each other, increasing your neural activity, creating more connections to build on other connections—learning is taking place.

An area of interest in recent research [pdf] is neural plasticity as a factor in individual differences in intelligence. Plasticity is referring to the number of connections made between neurons, how that affects subsequent connections, and how long-lasting those connections are. Basically, it means how much new information you are able to take in, and if you are able to retain it, making lasting changes to your brain. Constantly exposing yourself to new things helps puts your brain in a primed state for learning.

Novelty also triggers dopamine (I have mentioned this before in other posts), which not only kicks motivation into high gear, but it stimulates neurogenesis—the creation of new neurons—and prepares your brain for learning. All you need to do is feed the hunger.

Excellent learning condition = Novel Activity—>triggers dopamine—>creates a higher motivational state—>which fuels engagement and primes neurons—>neurogenesis can take place + increase in synaptic plasticity (increase in new neural connections, or learning).

As a follow-up of the Jaeggi study, researchers in Sweden [pdf] found that after 14 hours of training working memory over 5 weeks’ time, there was an increase of dopamine D1 binding potential in the prefrontal and parietal areas of the brain. This particular dopamine receptor, the D1 type, is associated with neural growth and development, among other things. This increase in plasticity, allowing greater binding of this receptor, is a very good thing for maximizing cognitive functioning.

Take home point: Be an “Einstein”. Always look to new activities to engage your mind—expand your cognitive horizons. Learn an instrument. Take an art class. Go to a museum. Read about a new area of science. Be a knowledge junkie.

Shorter Kuszewski: Exercising your curiosity makes you smarter. It actually changes your brain. In today’s consumerist view of education, thirst for knowledge tends to get relegated as a somewhat quaint old liberal arts value that might be nice to pick up on the side after students have acquired those essential job skills. But the truth is that cultivation of curiosity makes students better equipped to acquire those essential job skills. (Not to mention more interested in doing so.)

The Broader Picture

This is just one example of the false dichotomies that often play out in educational reform debates, with one group pushing for a focus on job skills and the other championing the traditional liberal arts education. While there are some legitimate tensions between these goals, a lot (I might even say most) of the debate is caused more by an outdated industrial-age model of an ideal worker clashing with an outdated model of a well-rounded person descended from the university’s heritage as a refuge for the privileged class. Instead, we should be looking to different educational goals, returning to first principles, and figuring out how each one should be approached and layered on the others in a complementary way.

I propose three such layers. The first is what we might call educational readiness. These are the skills and habits that are necessary to learn anything. Curiosity is definitely one. Others might include the critical thinking, the ability to follow directions and the ability to concentrate. These are just examples; I’m sure others can do a better job of defining this domain. But the point is, without this foundation, any other educational effort is mostly wasted. The second layer is what I’d broadly call literacies. It’s a collection of skills and knowledge that one needs to function in modern society. It definitely includes traditional written literacy and numeracy, but it could also include media literacy, a basic understanding of statistics, some civics, and so on. The definition of this layer is open for debate and, in some cases, politically inflected, but the fact that the boundaries are up for grabs doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to define it. Educational readiness and literacies are the core of an education that everybody should have. Everything else, I would argue, is training. That includes academic disciplinary training. Training needs change based on the person, the state of the field or discipline as a body of knowledge, and the employment environment. But educational readiness and literacies are foundational. They are critical to the success of anyone in modern society. They are also consistent with both the desire to educate people to find productive and materially successful career paths and the desire to help people become well rounded, thoughtful, and personally fulfilled.

It is often the case that the same course will address two or even three of these domains. A survey of English literature can teach a student how to think critically, how to read a text carefully and how to do literary analysis like an English scholar all at the same time. But we shouldn’t assume that it will do so. Each of these three layers needs to be addressed explicitly, and sometimes separately. We can’t just layer on “core competency” evaluations and expect that to do the job. I also think that curiosity is unique in the sense that, by its very nature, to assess it is to destroy it. You can’t provide an extrinsic motivator like a grade to improve intrinsic motivation. The minute you start grading it, you’re done for. But you can encourage curiosity, and you might even be able to provide students with tools that help them become more aware of the degree to which they are pushing their own boundaries.

The Curiosity Zone

To borrow from Vygotsky, I think the way to foster curiosity is to find the zone of proximal curiosity. Think of it as a kind of assisted stretching. The goal is to find something close enough to the student’s current interests to get her to click but far enough away that it’s not something she would have thought to look for herself. There are a number of ways to do this. Certainly, MOOCs (or ROE classes, as I prefer to call them) are very useful in that (a) they don’t require anything of the student, but (b) the class structure and the social environment encourage students to try stuff. If you signed up for a ROE class in the first place, then there was something close enough to your zone to get you interested. An array of assignments, coupled with seeing your classmates do interesting things, might encourage you to try something. I particularly like Jim Groom’s twist of giving students the opportunity to create their own assignments. Anything to find that hook.

I also think technology can help. Like lots of other folks, I have grown frustrated at the low signal-to-noise ratio of my RSS reader and Twitter feed. I am simultaneously getting too much of the same thing and not enough of what I really want. Certainly, I’m getting a lot more information about a lot more topics than I did before I had these things, but I find they’re more useful for filling in gaps in my knowledge than for expanding my horizons, and the time investment I put in is high. Flipboard was something of an improvement because it added some curated content, but at the end of the day it was just tacking a news magazine onto my feed reader.

Enter Zite. Zite is like Flipboard, but with analytics that learn my preferences. I tell it which articles I liked and which ones it didn’t. It takes these evaluations and looks at the tags, authors, and publications of the article (and presumably Amazon/NetFlix social preference clustering) to find me more articles that might interest me while showing me fewer that I don’t like. One of the most gratifying things about using the app is that it has gotten me to read much more in areas where I have some latent interests but never bothered to find the right publications. I’m interested in psychology articles about brain plasticity and learning but not about “Six Ways to Be More Satisfied With Your Life.” I’m interested in arts and culture articles about art history but not so much about opera. Now I learn about stuff that interests me but that didn’t interest me enough to invest the time in finding reliable information sources to feed my hunger. Thanks to the app, I am reading much more widely than I was a couple of months ago. Zite has found my zone of proximal curiosity.

Imagine using similar technology but mixing in paradata in the style that the Learning Registry aspires to deliver (fast forward to about 1:15:05 for the relevant part):

If we are able to layer on explicit information about how the content is related to the person’s learning goals (e.g., I want to learn how to build robots) and learning context (e.g., I’m teaching myself), then we could deliver the content as learning resources. We could make it more useful. And, of course, all of this metadata and paradata we’re using could be represented as a network graph. We could show students exactly how far they are venturing from their initially stated core interests over time. We could provide them with a map of their intellectual explorations.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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2 Responses to The Zone of Proximal Curiosity

  1. Pingback: Knockout personality | Music for Deckchairs

  2. “To borrow from Vygotsky, I think the way to foster curiosity is to find the zone of proximal curiosity. Think of it as a kind of assisted stretching. The goal is to find something close enough to the student’s current interests to get her to click but far enough away that it’s not something she would have thought to look for herself.”

    One topical thinker that might also shed some light on this is Eli Pariser’s recent book titled THE FILTER BUBBLE. (I’m a little biased here having just reviewed it). Pariser doesn’t use your’s or Vygotsky’s phrasing but I think he could: For Pariser the zone of proximal curiosity is contracting rather than stretching as a result of increased personalization on the Web. The argument also has some relevance to the civic concerns you raised a few week ago in reference to the Occupy movement. In restricting our cognitive horizons personalization is also narrowing the public sphere and our awareness and interest in broader civic issues. Pariser isn’t saying that Web technology can’t play an important role in catalyzing curiosity and turning us into more active citizens. But he’s worried (in spite of initiatives like moveon.org) that the current trend toward more Web personalization isn’t helping much.

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