Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning

Curiosity is underemphasized in the classroom, but research shows that it is one of the strongest markers of academic success.

A boy builds a dinosaur robot; his teacher assists him.
David Mercado / Reuters

When Orville Wright, of the Wright brothers fame, was told by a friend that he and his brother would always be an example of how far someone can go in life with no special advantages, he emphatically responded, “to say we had no special advantages … the greatest thing in our favor was growing up in a family where there was always much encouragement to intellectual curiosity.”

The power of curiosity to contribute not only to high achievement, but also to a fulfilling existence, cannot be emphasized enough. Curiosity can be defined as “the recognition, pursuit, and intense desire to explore, novel, challenging, and uncertain events.” In recent years, curiosity has been linked to happiness, creativity, satisfying intimate relationships, increased personal growth after traumatic experiences, and increased meaning in life. In the school context, conceptualized as a “character strength,” curiosity has also received heightened research attention. Having a “hungry mind” has been shown to be a core determinant of academic achievement, rivaling the prediction power of IQ.

Yet in actual schools, curiosity is drastically underappreciated. As Susan Engel has documented in her book, The Hungry Mind, amidst the country’s standardized testing mania, schools are missing what really matters about learning: The desire to learn in the first place. As she notes, teachers rarely encourage curiosity in the classroom—even though we are all born with an abundance of curiosity, and this innate drive for exploration could be built upon in all students.

Curiously (pun intended), curiosity is also virtually absent from the field of gifted-and-talented education. A recent survey of required identification methods across all states found that only three considered motivation a part of giftedness. IQ, on the other hand, is required by 45 states, while 39 require standardized tests of achievement.

A recent feature story in Scientific American further punctuates this point. Misleadingly titled “How to Raise a Genius,” the article summarized the results of a 45-year study of children who at age 12 scored in the top 1 percent on the SATs and were subsequently tracked and then supported. At least 95 percent of the participants experienced some type of educational acceleration as a result of their identification, and most participated in enrichment programs such as Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY). The CTY program—which counts Mark Zuckerberg and Lady Gaga as alumni—was initiated to “find the kids with the highest potential for excellence in what we now call STEM,” and to figure out how to support them to increase the chances of them reaching this expected potential.

Much to the researchers’ delight, the results confirmed their expectations. Their “profoundly gifted children” indeed grew up to be an impressive group. The majority completed doctoral degrees from some of the best universities in the world (which require high test scores as a gating mechanism), and many boasted impressive literary and scientific-technical achievements, including patents and published books.

These findings suggest that early advanced test scores are an indication of one’s readiness for more enhanced resources, and this should certainly be supported. But what other conclusions can be drawn from these findings? That if you’re a parent and you want to “raise a genius” but your child isn’t precocious on academic tests at an early age, you’re out of luck? Or worse, that these are the kids, and only these kids, who the country should bank on? One of the lead authors of the study, David Lubinsky, was quoted as saying: “When you look at the issues facing society now—whether it’s health care, climate change, terrorism, energy—these are the kids who have the most potential to solve these problems. These are the kids we'd do well to bet on.”

But is this really true? The researchers selected students based on a single criterion—advanced test scores—and supported these precocious youth throughout their schooling, failing to select for some other variable and thus disregarding all the other children.

The Fullerton Longitudinal Study (FLS), a 30-plus year study of the development of giftedness across various points in time conducted by Adele and Allen Gottfried of California State University, takes a different approach. Instead of relying on teacher nominations—recent research suggests that nominations miss at least 60 percent of gifted students—the researchers started by assessing a group of 1-year-olds, long before any of them had a chance to be officially labeled as gifted. The only criteria for inclusion in the study were that the infants had to be full term, of normal weight, and free of visual and neurological abnormalities.

They initiated their study in 1979, and have been assessing the participants based on a wide range of variables (e.g., school performance, IQ, leadership, happiness) across multiple contexts (laboratory and home) since. During infancy and the preschool years, the participants were assessed every six months, and then they were assessed annually from the ages of 5 to 17.

One of their findings supports the work of Lubinsky and colleagues: Cognitive giftedness matters. Using the standard cutoff of 130 IQ resulted in 19 percent of the 107 children identified as “intellectually gifted” at the age of 8. While intellectually gifted children were not different than the comparison group with respect to their temperament, behavioral, social, or emotional functioning, they did differ in regards to their advanced sensory and motor functioning starting at age 1.5, their ability to understand the meaning of words starting at age 1, and their ability to both understand and communicate information thereafter. They were also more goal-oriented and displayed a greater attention span. By the time they began kindergarten, they performed at a higher level across diverse subject areas. Teachers rated intellectually gifted children as more competent in the classroom.

Parents of intellectually gifted children reported similar observations and were more likely than those of average children to say that their kids actively elicited stimulation by, for example, requesting intellectual extracurricular activities. (Intellectually gifted students tended to come from families that valued intellectual and cultural pursuits.) Children who become intellectually gifted, the Gottfrieds concluded, “are more environmentally engaged and may benefit more from their environment.”

These results provide a window into the development of intellectual giftedness in relation to cognition. But they only demonstrate part of the picture. The researchers also measured what they described as academic intrinsic motivation and identified the top 19 percent of the 111 adolescent participants as “motivationally gifted,” displaying extreme enjoyment of school and of learning of challenging, difficult, and novel tasks and an orientation toward mastery, curiosity, and persistence.

Interestingly, they found very little correspondence between intellectual giftedness and motivational giftedness. While the intellectually gifted students tended to show greater intellectual curiosity from infancy through adolescence, only eight children were both intellectually gifted and motivationally gifted. Also, the overwhelming majority of the differences on the academic intrinsic-motivation test could not be explained by differences in IQ scores, and academic intrinsic motivation predicted high-school GPA independently of IQ. The takeaway: Those with gifted curiosity are gifted in their own right.

Students with gifted curiosity outperformed their peers on a wide range of educational outcomes, including math and reading, SAT scores, and college attainment. According to ratings from teachers, the motivationally gifted students worked harder and learned more.

These findings have deep implications for gifted-and-talented education, as well as for education more generally. For one, they suggest that gifted curiosity is a distinct characteristic that contributes uniquely to academic success. As the Gottfrieds put it, “motivation should be considered as a criterion in and of itself to augment the selection of students into programs for the gifted and talented.” For another, they’re evidence of the benefits of programs that engage all students in the learning process—not as a means to developing other forms of giftedness (e.g., IQ, standardized test scores), but as an important characteristic all on its own. “Motivation should not be considered simply a catalyst for the development of other forms of giftedness, but should be nurtured in its own right,” note the Gottfrieds.

Stimulating classroom activities are those that offer novelty, surprise, and complexity, allowing greater autonomy and student choice; they also encourage students to ask questions, question assumptions, and achieve mastery through revision rather than judgment-day-style testing.

But these experiences happen outside of the classroom as well. The Gottfrieds investigated the role parents play in fostering in their children an affinity for science by exposing them to new experiences that make them curious, for example, like taking them to museums. They found that such activities helped children develop an intrinsic motivation for science (e.g., “I enjoy learning new things in science; I like to find answers to questions in science”) and teacher ratings of student academic performance. In turn, both of those factors predicted the number of advanced courses taken and interest in a science career, among other outcomes. This finding has strong implications for the development of STEM considering that curiosity is a fundamental predictor of the aspiration to become a scientist.

All in all, the Fullerton study is proof that giftedness is not something an individual is either born with or without—giftedness is clearly a developmental process. It’s also proof that giftedness can be caused by various factors. As the Gottfrieds write in their book Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects, “giftedness is not a chance event … giftedness will blossom when children’s cognitive ability, motivation and enriched environments coexist and meld together to foster its growth.”

Related Video