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What makes students curious about science?

Chris Reid, Doctoral Researcher at King's College London

‘It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of enquiry’, Einstein is reported to have said.

Given recent developments in school culture, Einstein’s criticisms could equally be levelled at today’s education systems. It is hard to see where ‘the holy curiosity of enquiry’ is expected to sit alongside the intensification of high-stakes testing, the pressures of internal and external quality assurance processes, the adoption of knowledge-rich curricula and the rejection of ‘progressive’ methods of teaching in favour of direct teacher instruction, to name but a few, which have served to narrow the path along which learning is expected to progress.

Educational authorities agree with Einstein – at least in principle – that curiosity’s place within schools is worth considering. Several governments’ education departments have introduced policies aimed at promoting children’s curiosity (see for example Department for Education (England), 2014; Department of Education (Australia), 2015; Department of Education (Ireland), 2019). Researchers have claimed that there are numerous benefits associated with being curious, including increases in enquiry behaviours, motivation and interest in school subjects (Chin & Osborne, 2008; Wu et al., 2018).

Concerns have been raised in the literature that children’s curiosity, as well as its expression within the classroom, undergoes a rapid decline as children age (see for example Engel, 2015). Very little is known, though, about what makes children curious in the classroom. To help rectify this deficit, my doctoral research investigates what makes secondary school students curious about science. I have recently conducted a pilot study, which I will report on at BERA’s 2023 conference, trialling a number of methods of assessing students’ scientific curiosity.

‘Concerns have been raised in the literature that children’s curiosity, as well as its expression within the classroom, undergoes a rapid decline as children age [but] very little is known about what makes children curious in the classroom.’

I chose a class of year 7 (age 11–12) students, because there are indications that this is the stage at which students’ opinions about secondary science change most rapidly (Wellcome, 2020). First, I interviewed five of the students individually, and showed them a range of scientific objects they could choose from, including a dynamo, a fossilised piece of wood and a skeletal hippopotamus foot. Using the ‘think-aloud protocol’ (Ericsson & Simon, 1998), students voiced their thoughts while examining these objects, from which I constructed a qualitative indication of their curiosity.

Across three science lessons with the group, I used an experience sampling method to look at the relationship between students’ in-the-moment state of curiosity and the activity they were engaged in. I rang a bell at five points and students noted down how curious they felt. Curiosity peaked during a chemistry practical, and was also high during a whole-class discussion about how the eye works. Students’ curiosity slumped during recall starters and tests.

While these findings were perhaps predictable, interviews conducted with students after each lesson painted a richer picture. How curiosity was evoked, satisfied or faded away depended on a range of factors, which I will investigate further in the next stage of my research. An interview with the class teacher added another dimension, raising questions about whether teachers may feel a conflict between the desire to promote students’ curiosity and the need to progress through a scheme of work or exam specification.

Previously, curiosity has been treated largely as an individual phenomenon in psychological studies. My research aims to shed light on the social factors that give rise to curiosity in the classroom, and give practitioners as well as researchers more of an indication about how students’ curiosity can be harnessed, in the hope that modern methods of instruction could foster rather than strangle the holy curiosity of enquiry.

This blog post relates to a session at the 2023 BERA Annual Conference: ‘What role does curiosity play in the science classroom? Report on a pilot study’ on Tuesday 12 September, 11am–12:30pm.


Chin, C., & Osborne, J. (2008). Students questions: A potential resource for teaching and learning science. Studies in Science Education, 44(1), 1–39. 

Department for Education [DfE] (England). (2014). National curriculum in England: Secondary curriculum.  

Department of Education [DoE] (Australia). (2015). National STEM school education strategy 2016–2026.,analysis%20and%20creative%20thinking%20skills

Department of Education [DoE] (Ireland). (2019). STEM education policy.

Engel, S. (2015). The hungry mind. Harvard University Press.

Ericsson, K. A., & Simon, H. A. (1998). How to study thinking in everyday life: Contrasting think-aloud protocols with descriptions and explanations of thinking. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 5(3), 178–186.

Wellcome. (2020). Science education tracker 2019.

Wu, P.-H., Kuo, C.-Y., Wu, H.-K., Jen, T.-H., & Hsu, Y.-S. (2018). Learning benefits of secondary school students inquiry-related curiosity: A cross-grade comparison of the relationships among learning experiences, curiosity, engagement, and inquiry abilities. Science Education, 102(5), 917–950.