Curiosity is one of our core values at Churchill. It’s important because when you’re curious about something, you process it deeply, rather than superficially. You also voluntarily spend more time learning about things that spark your curiosity. As a result, you more readily remember what you learn. The desire to find out more about the world we live in, about other people, about the way things work…these are the fuels that feed the fire of education.
Children, adults and most animals have a natural, in-built curiosity. Biologists believe that this instinctive curiosity is a survival mechanism which was selected through evolution, because those animals that were curious and explored their environment were able to identify opportunities and risks in their environment, and were therefore more likely to survive. Clever stuff!
However, curiosity can also be harnessed as a distraction. I fell into this trap this week. Before I sat down to some school work that I needed to do, I thought I would treat myself and watch the latest Taylor Swift video on YouTube. Unfortunately, as the video finished, I noticed the title of a video in the “up next” column to the right: “Taylor Swift reacts to embarrassing footage of herself after laser eye surgery.” It caught my attention, and made me curious enough to click it to see what it was about. As did the next one. And the next one. Half an hour later, I was watching Brie Larson playing a virtual reality lightsabre game with Jimmy Fallon on a late-night American talk show. Entertaining though this was, there was actual work that I should have been doing and I’d actually only wanted to watch the one video…
I’m sure many of you have had this same experience, and been sucked in by the clever algorithms that are designed to grab and keep our attention. Like on Netflix, when the episode finishes and you’re just reaching for the remote to switch it off because you know you really need to go to bed, but then just at that moment the next episode starts. Your curiosity is sparked, wondering what happens next…and you sink back onto the sofa with that deadly “I’ll just watch one more episode.”
Why do we fall so easily into the clickbait trap, when we know there’s important work we should be doing? Psychologist Daniel Willingham explains:
Research shows that the trigger for curiosity is our sense that there’s an easy opportunity to learn a lot. That’s a moment-to-moment judgment, which is why curiosity can come and go so quickly.
Furthermore, curiosity is not influenced by long-term learning goals. That’s why, even though I’m a psychologist who loves his work, I still might be bored at a talk on psychology. But Internet content that promises quick and easy information draws my attention even if, after the fact, it doesn’t seem worth my time.
Willingham advises that the best way to avoid the distracting diversion of tempting links is to find stimulating content that’s just as interesting as the stuff designed to keep you occupied on the internet.
Don’t expect children to avoid Internet time-wasters on their own.
Do recognize that curiosity can’t be controlled directly, but you can offer more tempting targets. Help kids find them. And model the behavior by creating a similar resource list for yourself.
I think this is helpful advice. But I know that my willpower sometimes isn’t up to it. So, to get my work done, I put my phone in another room. I close every other window and tab on my computer, other than the one I need. And I focus on just the one thing that I’m supposed to do, until it’s done. And then – after I’ve finished my work – I treat myself to that Taylor Swift video. And maybe just one more.