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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8
Research Matters

Cultivating Curiosity in Teens

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How can we flip the switch for disengaged teen learners?

Engagement
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In high school, I was a corner-cutting, underachieving, no attention-paying student. I remember one exasperated teacher spotting me, mid-lecture, turned around in my chair and chatting with a classmate. "You with the 30-second attention span!" he yelled. "Turn around and shut up!" He probably said some other things, too, but I wasn't paying attention anymore.
Fortunately, in college, something changed. I began pouring myself into my studies, spending late nights at the library, engaging with professors, and finding joy in learning. My story isn't unique; many other adolescent ne'er-do-wells have pulled it together later in life and, like myself, even returned to high school as teachers. Nonetheless, I find myself asking the same question I often pondered as a teacher: What "switch" flipped for me in college that high schools could help students flip in themselves?

Rigor Isn't Enough

It's true that students benefit from solid academic preparation. Yet as I noted previously in this column (Goodwin & Hein, 2016), student grade point average (GPA) and college entrance exams only account for about one-quarter to one-third of the variance in student success in college. Moreover, a study of 28,000 high school students in Texas (Klopfenstein & Thomas, 2009) found that putting kids in Advanced Placement classes didn't actually boost their success in college. Students who take such classes but perform poorly on the subsequent exam (scoring a 1 or 2) do no better in college than peers who took regular classes.
Another study found that students who earned low grades in honors or AP classes actually fared worse in college than peers who got high marks in regular courses (Sadler & Tai, 2007). Simply putting students in rigorous high school classes doesn't guarantee engagement or success. So, what do students really need from high school?

Dispositions for Success

To answer this question, let's consider the dispositions I've identified (Goodwin & Hein, 2016) that, together, account for more than 40 percent of the variance in college success:
  • Self-discipline and work habits (being goal-directed and avoiding procrastination).
  • Active learning (engaging with professors and discussing learning outside of class).
  • A can-do attitude (feeling capable of learning and achieving one's goals).
How can high schools help students develop these traits? One answer may lie in the Klopfenstein and Thomas study, which found that college preparatory courses that teach such things as note taking, study habits, and self-discipline were more effective in preparing students for college than college-level subject area courses, like honors and AP classes, which often presume students already have these skills.
Another answer may lie in what Willingham (1985) discovered when he reviewed high school transcripts of 3,676 students and rated them according to whether students had persisted in extracurricular activities for at least three years, showed growth in those activities, and served a leadership role (like becoming chess club president). These factors, Willingham found, predicted student success in college better than in-person interviews (though not as well as GPA). Nonacademic activities are likely a place where students develop important life skills, including setting and sticking with goals—lessons learned, for example, when waking up before dawn for swim practice.

More Than Persistence

For some, these findings may suggest high schools ought to be high-pressure boot camps, forging in students the "grit" they need to keep going when the going gets tough. However, Angela Duckworth, who popularized the concept of "grit" (2016), notes that grit is actually a combination of persistence and passion. "If you are really, really tenacious and dogged about a goal that's not meaningful to you, and not interesting to you—then that's just drudgery," she told an interviewer (Dahl, 2016, np).
For many adolescents, though, developing such passions may be too grandiose. It may be more productive to help them develop bite-sized passions or simply interests. A quality related to having interests is curiosity. As it turns out, a study of college students (Kashdan & Steger, 2007), found that students who reported higher levels of curiosity also demonstrated greater persistence, goal-directedness, and positive attitudes about learning. Researchers in Spain (Garrosa et al., 2016) similarly found that when college students reported feeling more curious about their studies in the afternoon, they felt more energized at day's end.
Alas, high school often undermines student curiosity. The Fullerton Longitudinal study (Gottfried, Fleming, & Gottfried, 2001), which tracked the same group of students' feelings about school over time, found their interest in core academic subjects started to dip in middle school and continued to decline through most of high school. Consider that: Just when students ought to be delving into the mysteries of science, learning math to solve complex problems, and encountering the drama of human history, their interest in in-school learning wanes.
After detecting a similar pattern of teenagers expressing lower levels of intellectual curiosity, Reio (2010) interviewed a handful of high school students to see what was dampening their curiosity. Sometimes, school made them curious, they told him—thanks to teachers sparking their curiosity. Yet more often, teachers "killed" their curiosity with "bad teaching," "being mean," "putting no effort into making things fun or interesting," and "drill and kill" activities that stifled "creativity and desire to think outside the box" (p. 104).
It's worth noting that the Fullerton study found students remain generally interested in school, finding engagement and interest in such activities as the arts and extracurriculars. Looking back, that was my story as a teen. While apathetic about academics, I was interested in other parts of school, including cohosting its cable access TV show. I carried that interest into college, where I explored and developed new interests. So if there's one "switch" high schools could help students flip, it might be, simply, their curiosity.
References

Dahl, M. (2016, May 9). Don't believe the hype about grit, pleads the scientist behind the concept. The Cut.

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner.

Garrosa, E., Blanco-Donoso, L. M., Carmona-Cobo, I., & Moreno-Jiminez, B. (2016). How do curiosity, meaning in life, and search for meaning predict college students' daily emotional exhasution and engagement? Journal of Happiness Studies, 18(1), 24.

Goodwin, B., & Hein, H. (2016). The X-factor in college success. Educational Leadership, 73(6), 77–78.

Gottfried, A. E., Fleming, J., & Gottfried, A. W. (2001). Continuity of academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through late adolescence: A longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 3–13.

Kashdan, T. B., & Steger, M. F. (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. Motivation and Emotion, 31(3), 159–173.

Klopfenstein, K., & Thomas, M. K. (2009). The link between Advanced Placement experience and early college success. Southern Economic Journal, 75(3), 873–891.

Reio, T. G. (2010). What about adolescent curiosity and risk taking? In J. L. DeVitis & L. Irwin-DeVitis (Eds.), Adolescent education: A reader (pp. 99–109). New York: Peter Lang.

Sadler, P. M., & Tai, R. H. (2007). Weighting for recognition: Accounting for Advanced Placement and honors courses when calculating high school grade point average. NASSP Bulletin, 91(1), 5–32.

Willingham, W. W. (1985). Success in college: The role of personal qualities and academic ability. New York: College Board.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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