"The first class I ever visited at Saturday Academy was called 'Simple Machines.' Students were learning about gears and levers by building windmills. I noticed one student who I thought was struggling and I tried to subtly signal the instructor to help him. She noticed and gestured, 'Just wait a bit.' The student continued to try different parts and arrangements and the instructor asked questions in a way that guided the student’s exploration. And then the 'ah ha' moment occurred, the student 'got it' and completed the windmill with great pride and a smile. As it turns out, that little bit of struggle is a great way to learn and more likely to have lasting effects than if the instructor had told the student 'put this piece here.' Why is that? It is because the pathway from curiosity to the pleasure of discovery is built into the brain’s wiring for learning.
Here’s the story: Our brains are tuned to notice differences in the environment. Change--such as a new person, an object, a funny face--is what makes neurons tick. Novelty shifts our attention and that initiates a cascade of events that eventually permit the storage of information, or what we call memories. The first phase in the cascade is attending to and exploring 'the new thing' and all sensory systems participate - hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste, and internal sensations. Novelty detection is available at birth – even newborns turn their head and eyes toward new objects, sounds and voices.
The next phase is placing what is being seen or heard or felt into the context of all things known. Do I know what this is? Am I familiar with it? Have I seen something like it? This is where it gets interesting. Experiencing something over and over increases the likelihood it will be remembered later. We call that rote memorization. But what if instead of having all the information in front of you, you must search for the answer such as by looking it up or discussing it with a friend? Then it is even more likely to be remembered. Why? Finding an answer requires a search of the network of the past as well as pins it to the unique context of the new learning (e.g. the conversation with a friend).
Then comes curiosity. Not knowing, and discovering for yourself is a much better way to learn than being told the answer. Why is that? Memories are not stored as complete packets of information. Instead they are reconstructed. That process of reconstruction activates entire networks in the brain – all the more so when searching for information or for meaning. Being curious puts the learning into a wider context and activates networks that are advantageous for recalling and using the information later. Even more interesting is that brain imaging studies show that the degree to which you are curious, or struggle a bit to understand, increases the likelihood that you will be successful at retrieving and using the information later.
What I love the most is this: Brain imaging shows that the brain activates emotional centers for 'ah ha' moments of learning but not for rote memorization. Thus, curiosity not only impacts the quality of learning, it boosts the emotional system that supports further learning. We value curiosity at Saturday Academy because it supports high quality learning and encourages life-long learners."
Jeri Janowsky, Ph.D.
Executive Director Saturday Academy