Opinion: If tests crush curiosity in children, it’s hard to rekindle

In a guest column, Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia, discusses how to nurture curiosity in children. (Courtesy of Molly Emerson Pratt)

Credit: Molly Emerson Pratt

Credit: Molly Emerson Pratt

In a guest column, Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia, discusses how to nurture curiosity in children. (Courtesy of Molly Emerson Pratt)

Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor, Emeritus, at the University of Georgia and a 2023 inductee in the National Academy of Education, which advances high-quality research to improve education policy and practice.

In this guest column, Smagorinsky discusses how to nurture curiosity in children.

By Peter Smagorinsky

On a recent trip, I spent part of the plane ride watching a MasterClass video hosted by Bill Nye, The Science Guy, titled “Bill Nye Teaches Science and Problem-Solving.” When my kids were young, we watched “The Science Guy” faithfully. I was a lousy science student in my youth, foiled by endless demands to memorize bits and pieces of information. Bill Nye made science fun and interesting. Watching his show with my kids was a way to learn things, talk about them, and share some laughs along the way.

The MasterClass series I watched is more aimed at adults than children. Nye continues to infuse his talks with his engaging and infectious enthusiasm for science. That’s what I found so striking about the program, and why I enjoyed it. Science can be cool, stimulating and worth knowing.

But science classes were always boring and frustrating for me. Memorize the periodic table of elements. Memorize acids and bases. Pass them on a test (maybe). Then forget all of it. Meanwhile, the world is filled with fascinating scientific phenomena that help us plant plants in the right place, understand the implications of different clouds, eat foods that promote health, and much more.

When rote schooling dulls one’s interest in a fascinating subject, it might stay dull for a long time. I hated history classes, filled with lectures about factoids that never cohered into concepts or useful knowledge. All dots, little connection. I ended up an English major, also enduring lectures on what literary critics said about the works, but finding ways to think about life in society that the stories inspired.

Later in life, I began reading history, and haven’t stopped. I read the histories of places I want to learn about, and nobody requires a multiple-choice test on its details. Rather, I’m captivated by the narratives of the events that have shaped the world over time. History is fascinating and important to know. History classes in my experience turn the past into the grist for an examination, often testing what I found least worth knowing.

Peter Smagorinsky

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Many students in English classes — the subject I taught in Chicago-area high schools — love reading novels by their favorite authors. These same students hate classes where they get tested on picayune details from a story, or are denied the emotional responses that give them passion for reading, or are evaluated only on their technical facility in breaking a story or poem into its component parts.

I was really struck by something that Bill Nye said during one of the MasterClass programs: “Spark curiosity at a young age.” Curious kids may experience the passion, beauty and joy of learning and of life. Other scientists have found that curiosity is a key factor in learning, memory, and success in school and life. Nye is concerned that if curiosity is crushed in the first 10 years of life, it will be difficult to rekindle.

And to many, “Schools are killing curiosity” to emphasize “academics” that make knowledge rote, abstract and tedious. The role of the student is passive; asking questions is discouraged. Student inquiries, when their imaginations and curiosity about the world become available to promote their learning, are many and varied. But standardized test items, along with many other tests in school, have only one answer.

And standardized tests are the way people in the United States determine the quality of teaching and learning, with crisis rhetoric providing the impetus for emphasizing test preparation and rendering curiosity into roadkill. Test scores go down, and panic ensues, no matter how little the tests tell us about what students have learned based on their own interests and investigations.

Memorizing facts mostly serves the purpose of memorizing facts. People who don’t reassemble them into meaningful wholes might be able to recite them, but in most cases aren’t able to use them in any functional way, or remember them after the test is over. Doing so requires the curiosity to synthesize information into a practical concept about how the world works.

One indication of student curiosity is the frequency with which they ask questions. In school, however, teachers ask most questions, and students are expected to answer them, and answer them briefly. The studies I have linked on question-posing in school are from an era less overcome by the testing mania that mutes students’ interest and focuses on answering questions posed by psychometricians and test-designers from far outside the classroom.

Most student questions found in this older research were procedural, asking what page to turn to or requesting a bathroom pass. Inquiring into academic content? Not so much. And undoubtedly, less so now with scripted curricula and test-driven assessments driving teaching, if not learning.

I don’t wish to locate the problem entirely with teachers, although they often are complicit, perhaps reluctantly, in stifling student curiosity. Teachers work within systems that reward some behaviors and not others.

When teachers’ job security depends on their students’ test scores, they will work to promote test scores and not what isn’t tested. When a school’s reputation is measured by test scores, the administrators and school boards will develop policies designed to increase scores, usually by sacrificing untested parts of the curriculum.

When the primary means of evaluating the quality of education is reductive and disaffecting, students will tune out and pursue interests beyond what is in the curriculum, and then be judged not to have learned anything at all.

Perhaps curiosity killed the cat. And perhaps the death of curiosity is lethal to our children’s and youth’s growth into active, committed, productive citizens.