Why Curiosity and Wonder Are Critical for the Next Generation of Scientists

January 17, 2018 Samantha Green

Curiosity is often held up as one of the most important qualities of a good scientist. It is also a quality that brings success in education. In a meta-analysis published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Sophie von Strumm reinforced this theory. Based on data from 200 different studies (encompassing 50,000 students) she found that conscientiousness and curiosity had equally big positive effects on academic performance, including traditional measures of intelligence.

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As von Strumm wrote, “I’m a strong believer in the importance of a hungry mind for achievement, so I was just glad to finally have a good piece of evidence. Teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners. That is very important.”

Many educational systems around the world focus on assessment or on retention of concepts. But countries like Finland prioritize curiosity. Whether bottom-up curiosity, when a novel event results in a desire to explore, or top-down curiosity, involving the intentional search for novel stimuli, curiosity impacts us on personal and interpersonal levels.

In a study on interpersonal impacts of curiosity, Kashdan concludes that curiosity is linked to greater tolerance, noncritical attitudes, unconventional thinking, and even the initiation of humor.

In many ways, curiosity is a coping mechanism. A curious person is better able to handle unwanted emotions or thoughts, as they are simply the start to questions and new discoveries. A curious person is also more likely to seek out the new, and is more accepting of conflict between what they know and contradictory information.

The nature of curiosity makes it a key indicator of whether an individual is susceptible to misinformation. Kashdan shares that “curious people are less likely to prematurely commit to initial ideas and perspectives. In fact, there is evidence that the need for structure and cognitive closure are not only inversely related to curiosity, but reside at the other end of the continuum.”

Curiosity for science learning can be curbed by societal and cultural expectations around who “likes” science and who does not. We are all influenced by the expectations of our communities, and when science, or media depictions of science, do not welcome girls or minorities, their natural curiosity for science may be diminished.

In addition, wonder may also have educational value when it comes to scientific literacy and an increased understanding of the world.

Whereas curiosity sparks inquiry, wonder is an experience. Says author Anders Schinkel, “curiosity implies the realization that there is some particular thing one does not yet know, but it doesn’t foreground the question of the general extent of one’s current knowledge (or ignorance) the way wonder does,”

In other words, curiosity familiarizes the novel and wonder de-familiarizes the known. Educationally speaking, wonder is critical for making us aware of the limits of our understanding. Wonder implies a drive to know meaning, but Schinkel also describes how deep wonder often translates into a love of the world and a sense of awe.

With wonder comes a desire to understand the world and ask questions. We should not, according to Schinkel, “be misled by the fact that deep wonder may render us speechless, because this should not be taken to mean that it blocks all speech, all efforts at articulation.”

In practice, education is about knowing and naming phenomena, whereas wonder is about the thrill of engaging with the world around us. This tension can result in classrooms where acquiring scientific concepts is the focus, over fostering curiosity and wonder in students.

Global scientific literacy, however, would likely benefit from connecting the two, fostering a love of learning and a hunger to know more about how science integrates with our everyday lives. Curiosity based education has the potential to improve scientific literacy overall and attract more young people to STEM fields.

The above is an excerpt from the forthcoming Wiley Report: “To Know the World: Transforming Science Communication and Literacy to Improve Research Impact.”

Image Credit: Hero Images/Getty Images


About the Author

Samantha Green

Society Marketing, Wiley // Samantha Green joined Wiley in 2012, working in the Social Science and Humanities Community Marketing team at Wiley. She now works in the Society Strategy & Marketing creating content on publishing trends and the research community.

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