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Curiosity as a Learning Outcome

Can we update our learning-assessment systems?

When we speak of learning outcomes, we typically mean either skill mastery or successful recall of information. Indeed, we often make successful recall--what our students tend to call regurgitation--an easy-to-measure proxy for mastery. Inputs match outputs, and the student passes the class. Problem solved--or is it?

While techniques such as portfolio-based assessment and problem-based learning have attempted to go well beyond measuring mere recall, our education systems continue to use industrial-era strategies to increase access and cut costs. These so-called efficiencies drive a race to the bottom in which login behaviors and click counts in various areas of "learning management systems" track compliance and regurgitation within teacher-centered paradigms of direct instruction.

The French have a poignant term for the kind of learner such schooling tends to produce: the bon élève, which the great mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot once defined as "a student with good grades, no depth, and no vision."

Our world is too complex, our problems too intricate, our opportunities too vast to settle for such narrow aspirations. It is no longer enough merely to create dutiful students who amass credit hours, credentials, and cynicism about learning while governments topple, economies melt down, and many people lack the basic necessities.

What if we took another tack, specifying that students should not only remember information but also demonstrate increased curiosity? Consider, for example, "Curiosity and Exploration Inventory-II," a test devised by a team of psychologists at four US universities (see the Journal of Research in Personality 43 [2009] 987-998) to measure a person's level of curiosity. Researchers asked students to rate the extent to which each of these statements describes them:

  1. I actively seek as much information as I can in new situations.
  2. I am the type of person who really enjoys the uncertainty of everyday life.
  3. I am at my best when doing something that is complex or challenging.
  4. Everywhere I go, I am out looking for new things or experiences.
  5. I view challenging situations as an opportunity to grow and learn.
  6. I like to do things that are a little frightening.
  7. I am always looking for experiences that challenge how I think about myself and the world.
  8. I prefer jobs that are excitingly unpredictable.
  9. I frequently seek out opportunities to challenge myself and grow as a person.
  10. I am the kind of person who embraces unfamiliar people, events, and places.

What's striking here is how closely these statements describe the very qualities higher education seeks to strengthen over the course of a degree program. Equally striking is the extent to which these statements describe the capacities that digital citizens of the 21st century will need to adapt to rapid, unpredictable change.

I can only conclude that effective education for the 21st century must trade compliance for curiosity. The assignments we craft, the curricula we plan, the degrees we grant must share a core commitment to help our students go beyond the limits they imagine for themselves, and we must do this by specifying increased curiosity as a learning outcome.

We can start with our increasingly digital environment. MIT's Seymour Papert laments that "before the computer could change school, school changed the computer." It's not too late to reverse that trend. Instead of using computers to automate drill-and-kill problem sets, we should look to the history of computing for horizons of possibility. The internet was invented to empower collaboration and augment human intellect. The web has made these possibilities available to a staggeringly diverse global citizenry. Let's shutter our "learning management systems" and build "understanding augmentation networks" instead, moving away from educational assembly lines toward intellectual ecosystems of interest and curiosity.

Editor's note: Campbell will give the opening keynote at the School and College Building Expo, colocated with FETC, Jan. 24-26 in Orlando, FL.

About the Author

W. Gardner Campbell is Director of Professional Development and Innovative Initiatives in the Division of Learning Technologies at Virginia Tech.

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