74 Interview: Co-Authors — and Identical Twins — on What Connects Curiosity to Learning

Philosophy professor Perry Zurn and physicist Dani S. Bassett talk about their new book, Curious Minds: The Power of Connection.

Perry Zurn and Dani S. Bassett

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One of the great paradoxes of American education is that children everywhere are sparkling with curiosity, but schools are constantly scrambling to rethink their strategies for student engagement. It’s like the most famous lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the protagonist floats in the ocean, ironically cursed: “Water, water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.”

How can this persistently be so? How is it that children are so thoroughly, exhaustingly curious … but so many schools feel that they need to cajole, coax, even trick their students into learning? 

Perhaps the problem stems from a misunderstanding of how human curiosity works. In their new book, Curious Minds: The Power of Connection, co-authors — and identical twins — American University associate professor of philosophy Perry Zurn and University of Pennsylvania professor of bioengineering, physics and astronomy Dani S. Bassett offer a reframing that could help educators dissolve their frustrating paradox. The book is an outline of curiosity as relational, as a connecting function instead of the more traditional view, what Zurn and Bassett call an “acquisition” function.

Clearly that has implications for school, other learning settings, and curricula — for, as they put it, “the architecture of what is learned and the arrangement of learners in the process.” 

This article has been edited for clarity and length.

The 74: I’m wondering just as best you can, can you describe relational curiosity for a layperson? What does it mean to compare curiosity to edgework?

Dani S. Bassett: So for a long time, curiosity has been studied as information-seeking in the sciences. Neuroscientists are particularly interested in understanding what is happening in the brain when people are curious. One of the current challenges is that we have trouble figuring out which piece of the brain is related to curiosity specifically versus motivation, attention, or, say, excitement about particular kinds of information. There are so many sub-processes in the mind and in the brain that are used in the process of curiosity that it is very difficult to figure out what it is we are actually studying.

Perry Zurn: Meanwhile, there’s a debate in educational theory about motivation versus interest, for example, and which one is actually the thing that’s more aligned with curiosity, and therefore with learning — hopefully. So there’s just a lot of stuff that we assume is related, but how it’s related isn’t clear.

I’m trained in philosophy. One thing I notice when I read over philosophical theories of curiosity, is that typically curiosity is considered (much like in the sciences) on an acquisitional model: If I want to know something, I want to gain knowledge of that thing. I want to acquire knowledge, facility or skill with that thing. This characterization appears over and over again, and there’s some usefulness to it? I want my kid to learn their letters, their numbers. You acquire, you gain a facility with these very specific tools or symbols.

So the characterization is useful, but it’s really limited. What we argue in the book is that what’s more fundamental to understanding how curiosity works is not its capacity to acquire any one piece of information, but rather to connect information that we currently have with information that’s new, or to make connections between pieces of information we already have.

In the book you explore the implications that this reconceptualization of curiosity has for reimagining education. What are some concrete ideas that teachers, schools, and policymakers can use to facilitate this kind of relational curiosity?

Zurn: We write about styles of curiosity extensively in the book. There’s a presumption that curiosity looks one particular way in a classroom. Someone curious asks a lot of questions. They might sit at the front if they have the chance. They maintain eye contact and seem eager, etc. But this image of curiosity really doesn’t do justice to all the ways in which curiosity actually is expressed in humans. We need a much larger palette of curious behaviors that educators can recognize and encourage in their students.

I think this is increasingly relevant given the rise of anxiety and depression in our country and among our students. But that’s just one reason. Students with learning differences and neuro-atypicalities fill our classrooms with all kinds of different curious behaviors. Thinking about styles of curiosity can help us better understand and support all of those students.

Sure. So it’s a case against tracking and for educators attentive to diversity and aiming for personalized learning opportunities. And, of course, the big question is: How do you do that structurally? What’s the lever you pull to shift the mindsets and behaviors of millions of teachers?

Bassett: I think there is also a place for changing the way that we structure textbooks or classroom materials, because I think those materials themselves are emphasizing or supporting certain kinds of curiosity. They’re also emphasizing certain kinds of knowledge, and often it’s not the connective knowledge that one could emphasize.

Instead, they frame learning like building a wall of bricks. You have this piece of information that you add onto this piece and then you add on this piece, and then you stack them just so until you have a wall.

Alternative materials would try to pull in links that help expand the child’s mind in new and different ways, to stretch them to build different kinds of knowledge architectures. So I do think that there may be a place for altering the education of teachers, but we also need to change the materials that you give them.

You each have young children, right? How are you connecting your work with that work, that joy, that fulfillment of raising a kid? You can’t write a book about curiosity and also spend time with the toddler without seeing the links, right?

Bassett: So my kids are 11 and 8, both in elementary school. For me, it’s taken a while to recognize what it is that they are most excited about reading, and put aside my own preconceptions about what good literature is. In the book, we emphasize that we need to notice and follow what the child is desiring and how the child’s mind wants to move. I’ve had to stretch myself to engage certain reading materials I wasn’t expecting to.

You’re talking about Captain Underpants, right?

Bassett: [laughs] Yes. And Dog Man. And Cat Kid. And Big Nate.

Zurn: I have a toddler and we’re currently touring preschools. It’s terrifying how some of them are super gadget-focused. They’re putting each kid in front of an individual iPad screen at their little individual desk — and for hours. And then there’s the complete opposite: your kid plays outside, with other kids, for eight hours a day with very little direction. Kids just explore their bodies and the world and each other. 

Dani and I were homeschooled. We were given immense freedom to direct our education and follow our interests and much of our learning happened in the great outdoors. 

When I think about my kid, I want that connective approach to curiosity. I want education to be individualized, but not individual. I want it to be attuned to the individual differences of each student, but not to create isolated learners — isolated from each other, from themselves, and from the natural world around them. That’s what I’m looking for.

[Speaking of the connective approach to curiosity], it isn’t as though there’s a truth, a fact of the matter out there that we didn’t know until we got curious and went out and got it for our storehouse of facts. Rather, it’s that we have a series of knowledge networks that we wander through life with that work more or less well, but they’re clearly not perfect. They’re just good enough to get through the day… until we encounter something new that prompts us to add, update and revise, right?

Zurn: Right. Curiosity becomes this capacity to connect, and in a greater sense to build knowledge architectures, those ways that all of our knowledge hangs together in our head in some way. And those architectures are unique to each one of us, because each of us knows different things, but they also tend to be socially curated. They depend on where you live, both the country you live in, but also your specific neighborhood, even who you hang out with.

You will know or believe you know a certain set of things, and they will constitute the stars in your sky, the constellations around which you start to navigate your world.

You have those preconceptions, those habits of mind that you use to make sense of things, and then — suddenly, inevitably — they don’t work to make full sense of something.

Zurn: Right. So it’s important to think about the flexibility of our knowledge networks. How do they grow? How do they move? How do they change? How do they respond? How are they responsive?

Bassett: My background is in physics and in physics, you can build different sorts of structures that have different functions. Compare the Eiffel Tower and a nearby telecommunications tower. If you squint your eyes, those two things look similar. But if you think about the actual pattern of the scaffold, they’re really different. And the differences in the scaffold impact how flexible or rigid the system is, and also how much space it takes up in the physical world.

Now, take those ideas back into the mind. What network structures could we build in our minds that are relatively rigid versus more flexible? Some folks have knowledge networks that make it feel like the world is more rigid than it perhaps is. Others build networks with some gaps or holes, with more morphing as they move through life. If you hold the connections between ideas more tenuously, understanding with some intellectual humility that there’s more that you don’t know … then you’re allowing for these spaces that can then change with you as you grow.

Zurn: So how do we facilitate flexible learning among our students? We don’t want to say, “Here’s how it all works,” or, “This is the stuff you have to know,” and “It’s always been this way.” No. We want to show the stories about how we’ve thought about this differently, how it’s changed, what are some of the ongoing questions. To show how we hold the tension between something that we’re learning now, whether it’s in math, the social sciences, or art history, with another perspective from another region of the globe, for example, or with other mythologies about what the world is and how it works.

A lot of educators talk about how important it is to fail, and for failure to be OK. Well, in a similar way, I think part of facilitating learning is facilitating a familiarity and a comfort with unlearning, with realizing, “Oh, I don’t think I think that anymore. In fact, I have a totally different question now.” That’s a part of what it is to learn! It’s that moment of transformation, where the way in which everything hung together for you just fell apart. It can be scary and hard! But if you can get comfortable with that, I think, it has great implications for your learning in general.

And for our social and political context these days! Where so many folks dig in their heels and refuse to consider ways of seeing the world differently, or the history of the Earth differently.

There must be a social aspect of relational curiosity, right? That is, curiosity isn’t just about investigating our relationship to the past, but also about exploring how “here’s how it all works” is also embedded in networks of power right here and now.

Bassett: When we are curious we are often curious with another person or about another person or someone else is supporting our curiosity or policing our curiosity. The connection between two people is very relevant for understanding our personal experiences of curiosity. The same is true for students in the classroom.

But that’s just the start. It’s not just about interactions between two people. It’s about broader social networks — inside the classroom, in our lives, at home — that impinge upon, or support, or contribute to, or change the kind of curiosity that we engage in. Think of it like mentoring: we see a kind of curiosity in somebody else. We watch their mind move from idea to idea. We watch how they ask questions, and we think, “Oh, I want to think that way.”

The more kinds of curiosity that a person can observe through their social network, the more they can pull the bits that they like, and that they want to emulate. That can create, I think, a richer experience for students and adults alike.

Zurn: I like to talk about curiosity “formations.” Curiosity takes particular shapes: how we come up with a question, why we think it is justifiable, what kind of methods we pursue in order to answer it, and then what we think it may be useful for or contribute to. How you answer those questions will show you the shape or the contours or the formation of your curiosity.

Think about the ways in which we teach students to write essays — the really basic kind, the five-paragraph essay. This is how you pose a question, this is how you fill out an answer to it, this is how you rehash what you’ve shown in the writing.

Or how to solve or first formulate specific algebraic equations. How we ask the questions hints at how we’ll unravel the answers. We are constantly functioning within these different curiosity formations, and many of them are inherited in some way. Typically that’s because they have been especially useful.

But then it gets sticky. Useful for whom? A lot of times it’s for most humans in a particular geographical region. But also for those who’ve had the upper hand socially and have rewritten history to serve their ends. For instance, English itself didn’t just drop from the sky. It’s developed amidst a lot of linguistic policing over time.

So, we have to gain facility with those inherited forms of curiosity in order to succeed in the world socially, but we also need to be critical of them. That’s part of how we can break the fields open, and anyone of any age can do that.

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