Intellectual Curiosity

What is Intellectual Curiosity?

The newest breakdowns of student intelligence are far more refined than than just the classical IQ score. While intellectual quotient (IQ), which represents someone’s mental capacities and capabilities will always be a leading factor in educational and future success, it is not the only form on “intelligence” that a student needs in this day and age. In a world inundated with information, and that knowledge which you don’t have often only being a few clicks away, different skills are beginning to come forward. (Note, critical thinking is more than just recalling information and remains an important part of IQ as well.)

The second form of intelligence, though often under emphasized, is not new either. It is emotional quotient (EQ). EQ deals with our ability to process, control, and express emotions. A pivotal skill to develop for a healthy and successful future.
The final form of intelligence is not often considered though, and that is curiosity quotient (CQ). Slightly complex and new to education, the potential benefits are immense. “First, individuals with higher CQ are generally more tolerant of ambiguity. This nuanced, sophisticated, subtle thinking style defines the very essence of complexity. Second, CQ leads to higher levels of intellectual investment and knowledge acquisition over time, especially in formal domains of education, such as science and art (note: this is of course different from IQ’s measurement of raw intellectual horsepower)” (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2014). Intellectual curiosity can be a key motivating factor in students’ development in school and beyond.

Research has shown that intellectual curiosity has many positive benefits:

  1. Curiosity and effort seem to be as important as intelligence at determining how well students will do in school as intelligence (Von Stumm, Hell, and Chamorro-Premuzic, 2011, p. 82).
  2. Those with high levels of often curiosity display higher levels of adaptive behaviors (stress management, humor and playfulness, and positive social expression) than those with less curiosity (Kashan, Sherman, Yarbro, & Funder, 2013).
  3. People remember information about topics they are/were curious about for a longer period of time (Gruber, Gelman, Ranganath, 2014, p. 488).

So, as educators, we must not only use curiosity to tap into students’ attention, but actually foster the curiosity quotient in our students to improve their long term success.

Strategies to Foster Intellectual Risk Taking

Highlight the Non-Sensical

While this may sound like a tactic out of a Lewis Carrol book, it is not as far fetched as it seems. Consider this sad secular example, what do entertainers’ Kanye West and Lady Gaga have in common? For our purposes, it is the strangeness. The way the act and behave runs counterintuitively to our expectations. This makes them a constant topic (of usually uneducated in this case) study. People will visit websites, watch documentaries, listen to podcasts, and buy books and magazines about these personalities in order to try to figure out what makes them do these things.

What if educators could harness this power? Well, obviously the point of introducing this strategy is that you can.

This can work multiple ways, such as the traditional means of using an example to generate interest at the beginning of the lesson (i.e. “did you know a horse was once named a senator in Ancient Rome?” to initiate the study of Roman government or history). More powerfully though, it can work through careful instructional design. If a teacher is both aware of his or her students’ interest and academic abilities, a continual process of intrigue and answer can be fostered, and a strong foundation of curiosity is the result.

This is a careful process though, as curiosity can only carry one so far into exploration. If the students are unlikely too be able to satisfy their curiosity (i.e. the knowledge required is too high level) or if the time it takes to obtain the knowledge is too long, students are likely to not be interested (Loewenstein, 1994, p. 90). So, preparation and design are key. Topic must be of genuine interest to students, and the materials to explore the topic must all be at their level as well. Finally, the timeline must be reasonably aligned to the interest level of a specific age.

While it may initially take some trial and error to determine the specifics, in the long run this strategy used as a consistent tool can help to lay a foundation desire to be curious. Not to mention, utilizing pieces in this style often creates opportunities for more technical skill development.


8th Grade ELA students are reading To Kill a Mockingbird. The students are interested in the elements of racism. So, a teacher assigns multiple readings on scientific studies and the causes of racism. The students are asked to perform tasks such as delineating the author’s argument in order to gather evidence. Little do they know that these texts are of varying text structures, and in order to understand them fully, they will have to have a “quick” lesson about text structures… and the possibilities like this abound.

Present All Curiosity “Missions” as Positive Pursuits

Creating student buy in is always important, but it is especially so in fostering the development of curiosity. The theory of the “information gap” explains it this way: “as one gains information about a particular topic, there is an ever-increasing likelihood one will focus on what one does not know” (Loewenstein, 1994, p. 89). Just as with the strategy above though, if the gap is too large, it will shut a student down. Loewenstein uses an example of trying to get kids to name the fifty states. Ideally, a student knowing three should be driven by the gap to learn the others, but what if a classmate changes that into, ‘you only know 3? I know 47!’ (p. 89). Well, then the desire is often lost, because the gap feels too large
So, a teacher must do all they can to keep the pursuit positive, be it incremental incentives or recognition (think public display of students as they master different times tables), curiosity must be seen positively, or it just doesn’t work. This also applies to intellectual risk taking.

So, a teacher must do all they can to keep the pursuit positive, be it incremental incentives or recognition (think public display of students as they master different times tables), curiosity must be seen positively, or it just doesn’t work. This also applies to intellectual risk taking.

Problem Solving in Order to Problem Create

Problem solving is already a critical part of education. We all know that it is required to develop critical thinkers. For example, brain teaser boards, problems of the week/month in newsletters, or similar activities. What about if we take that a step further though, and we ask students to become the creator of these problems? Not only would they be required to learn the problem solution process in depth by having to think it through both forwards and backwards, but they would be forced to seek out new information on different topics in order to have the content necessary to challenge others. These could be a part of class, or student work could be used in the creation of brain boards or stations in hallways or could be added to newsletters.

Utilize the Information Gap Structure

In short, George Loewenstein did a ton of important research on the psychology of curiosity (multiple parts of which are mentioned elsewhere in this article). From this, he created a theory called the information gap theory. Annie Murphy Paul (2013) took this one step further and outlined how educators can easily use this structure:

  1. Start with the (well-designed and developed) question – This is important. Don’t sell it short. Not only does it need to be a question that students could potentially answer through their own resources (or teacher guided ones), but it also needs to be well and meaningfully articulated, think philosophical. Return the the To Kill a Mockingbird example from above, and think about how the teacher could structure the question to begin the activity. He or she could simply say, “why was there so much racism in Maycomb?” Or, instead the teacher could generate something that mattered like, “what causes racism” or “is racism scientific or social”?
  2. “Prime the Pump” – Help the students recognize what they don’t know. Provides some interesting further steps in the right direction, but make sure it does not complete the whole picture.
  3. Bring in Communication – Create a support system in the curiosity. It makes the whole process not only more successful educationally but more engaging as well. It centers the whole class around the benefits of curiosity.

Be Open About Your Own Curiosity 

Modeling is a well-known teaching tool, and it is powerful in fostering curiosity. What do you find interesting? What have you discovered? Where have you been? What do you want to learn? “Curiosity is contagious…[by sharing your experiences, both positive and negative], you’ll inspire your students to tackle new subjects and persevere through the initial discomfort that often comes with learning something unfamiliar” (Kowald, 2017). A teacher can open so many doors through learning, and being excited about the world and exploring it may be the most important door that could ever be opened in terms of fostering life long learners.

Teach Students to Ask Good Questions

This is particularly important at all levels, including with older students. Different seminars like the Socratic Seminar and Paideia Seminar create guided structures for middle to upper aged students of all levels to participate in deeper question and answer exchanges. Bloom’s Taxonomy question stem charts (or just question stem charts in general) empower students who may struggle with confidence or language to develop their own questions. The Question Formulation Technique is another powerful option. Whatever it be, asking good questions is a learned (therefore a teachable) behavior, so if teachers expect students to be more curious they have to teach them how to be.

Questions as a Part of Note-Taking and Reading

Cornell notes have historically also included key questions, but they can easily be used as a standard format. Take for example the following: Summarize, Analyze, Question, Reflect/Connect, Predict. For younger students, just including a section alongside standard reading questions such as, “write down three questions you had during this reading” can work for both fiction and non-fiction texts as a way to train students to be constantly generating questions. Use the below as a guide.


Give Opportunities to Ask Questions

As with so many skills in Independent Learning, the mistake the great teachers make is not in failing to teach students the skills, but instead, failing to give them an opportunity to safely use these skills. Depending on the level, “using” may look different, but the process is still similar. Younger students may have to be given a visual reminder as to the three types of graphic organizers they have learned to use, but with older students, you may be able to just ask well-designed questions and have them utilize the tools.


Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. (2014, August 27). Curiosity is as Important as Intelligence. Retrieved   April 9, 2017, from

Gurber, Matthias J., Gelman, Bernard D., and Ranganath, Charan. (2014, October 2). States of Curiosity Modulate Hippocampus-Dependent Learning via the Dopaminergic Circuit. Retrieved April 15, 2017, from

Kashdan, Todd B., Sherman, Ryne A., Yarbro, J., and Funder, D. (2013, February 5). How Are Curious People Viewed and How Do They Behave in Social Situations? From the Perspectives of Self, Friends, Parents, and Unacquainted Observers. Journal of Personality, 81(2), 142-154. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00796.x

Kowald, Tracy Ostwald. (2015, June 9). 5 Strategies to Inspire Curiosity in Students. Retrieved April 15, 2017, from

Loewenstein, George. (1994). The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75-98.

Paul, Annie Murphy. (2013, April 15). How to Stimulate Curiosity. Retrieved April 13, 2017, from

von Stumm, Sophie, Hell, Benedikt, and Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. (2011, November). The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 574-588.

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