Solutions and re-solutions for education

Are You Calm Enough to be Curious?

Posted by Dr. Ann P. McMahon on January 29, 2011

What are you insatiably curious about? What fascinates you? I bet you can think of more than one thing. That’s because it’s our nature to be curious. We’re born that way. Our brains are hardwired for exploration of the world around us. As babies we craned our necks and pushed our little arms and legs against mother to see the view beyond her arms and over her shoulder. As toddlers we rushed out from mother to experience our world on two wobbly legs, returning to her when we needed emotional refueling. Our innate curiosity compelled us to venture ever farther away from where we began life. Our temperament influenced the way we did this, but the developmental juggernaut of curiosity has carried us to where we are today. Along the way, we’ve been shaped by our experience of the world – our encounters with the natural and human-made world and the relationships we’ve had with others.  But did you know we need to feel safe and calm to be curious?

No doubt we’ve had experiences in our lives that evoked a wide variety of emotions. Events that evoke curiosity engage a different part of the brain than those that evoke fear. When we’re afraid, we perceive and react differently than when we’re calm. Fear impedes cognition and stifles curiosity. Neuroscientist Bruce Perry describes what happens:

“When we are under threat, our minds and bodies will respond in an adaptive fashion, making changes in our state of arousal (mental state), our style of thinking (cognition) and in our body’s physiology (e.g., increased heart rate, muscle tone, rate of respiration). To understand how we respond to threat it is important to appreciate that as we move along the arousal continuum — from calm to arousal to alarm, fear and terror — different areas of our brain control and orchestrate our mental and physical functioning. The more threatened we become, the more ‘primitive’ (or regressed) our style of thinking and behaving becomes.”

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux studies how the brain processes fear (our response to a threat that is present and immediate) and anxiety (our response to a threat that doesn’t exist yet). Our brains are wired to store our fear responses so that we respond the same way in a similar situation – an evolutionary adaptation that is meant to keep us alive. This automatic fear response can cause problems if the situation is supposed to be a nonthreatening part of everyday life, because we can think our way into an emotion, but our thoughts can’t control our emotional response.

It’s important for children to have positive emotional experiences with school and learning. Everyone who works in a school and school district can foster a child’s curiosity by contributing in their own way to creating an emotionally safe, calm and respectful environment in which students can learn. Social emotional learning standards and programs exist that can help schools learn to do this. It’s a complex and demanding change to make, but one that supports every child’s developmental need to explore the world beyond mother. I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life creating and delivering top-notch science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education programs to students and teachers in all kinds of learning environments. I’ve come to realize that no matter how exciting and meaningful and supported the learning experience is designed to be, a child cannot reap the cognitive benefits of it unless she feels calm enough to be curious. Brain research tells us this, and creating safe and calm conditions for each child’s learning is essential if we really want to leave no child behind.

Next…the difference between school science and school engineering


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