Curiosity and Care: the Core Necessity for Learning

Spring is brief where I live in Maine. It comes late and fast. For years I didn’t truly appreciate it because it was a far cry from the springs I was used to in Pennsylvania, where April birdsong was almost deafening and the abundance of colorful flowers kaleidoscopic. Here in Maine, there are certainly songbirds and flowers, but many fewer and much less spectacular than in Pennsylvania. But those days of missing the springs of the mid-Atlantic states have diminished as Iíve come to marvel at the abundance of amazing spring happenings here in Maine. In the past week Iíve seen the seals return to bask on the rocks at low tide and dozens of pairs of mergansers float by close to shore. The Spring Peepers Ė tiny frogs whose choruses are the Maine equivalent of mid-Atlantic cicadas in summer Ė are back, and the Bullfrogs, Green Frogs, newts and dragonflies have emerged at our pond.

A few days ago, I resumed my annual ritual of Seton-watching, sitting quietly outdoors in one spot to observe a small window for a period of time, usually around 30 minutes. When I first sit down, I usually have to remind myself to just wait and watch because invariably, nothing seems worth noticing for the first few minutes. But Iíve learned to persevere and quiet my chattering mind that keeps telling me to go back to work.

Surrounded by wonder

When I sat down this week, it didnít take long to marvel at what was happening around me. A Bullfrog lay right by me, unperturbed, and a Green Frog also seemed comfortable with my presence. Another Green Frog, however, took one look at me and hightailed it away. It was the first time I realized that frogs have distinct personalities. Then the newts started appearing, and I couldnít believe just how many I saw in so brief a time. But what was completely unexpected were the Spotted Salamanders and their dozen egg masses. Iíve never seen a Spotted Salamander in our pond before. They normally breed in vernal pools which, because they are seasonal, are not filled with predatory Bullfrogs and Green Frogs like my pond is.

Yesterday afternoon my husband and I went out to Otter Bog, where we stumbled upon a vernal pool filled with salamander and Wood Frog egg masses. It was marvelous. We had decided to go to Otter Bog instead of attending a vernal pool conservation talk that evening. We didnít think we had time for both, and attending a presentation didnít seem as exciting as heading outdoors with our dogs on a beautiful spring afternoon. But once we saw the vernal pool and realized how much we didnít know about it we decided to head back in time to attend the talk.

We love learning

Which leads me to the purpose of this post: We humans love to learn. We are endlessly curious and eager gatherers of new knowledge. But we do need motivation to learn new things, and that motivation comes from our enlivening experiences and our ability to care. Most people have no reason to get excited or care about vernal pools and their ecology or conservation, because vernal pools mean nothing to them. Even if they stumbled upon a vernal pool in the woods, they would be as likely to find it mucky and gross as they would to find it amazing and compelling. Thereís a positive feedback loop that occurs with curiosity. It is fed by care and some knowledge, which then inspires the desire to gain more knowledge and which makes us care even more.

Which is why itís so important that schools and teachers work in synch with their studentsí interests, fostering their innate curiosity by feeding and cultivating it through more knowledge and an understanding of why this knowledge is meaningful and worthy of their concern. Kids need to learn by doing and experiencing.

For years I taught professional development courses for teachers in which I included sessions on reaching children with different learning styles. Recently, learning style differences have been debunked, and as I recollect my years of demonstrating different approaches for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners, I realize that perhaps what the different approaches I utilized achieved was not so much ways of reaching people with differing learning styles, but rather reaching people period.

In the activity I led, I taught about a specific issue using different methods: sharing statistics and presenting factual information; telling an evocative story; showing a film, and allowing students to physically experience for themselves a situation that was being described. Perhaps the key wasnít so much that I was demonstrating different techniques for different sorts of learners, but rather that through these various approaches, I was allowing people to see, hear, feel, and do Ė all part and parcel of not only learning, but also of simply igniting our curiosity, engagement, caring, and desire to learn more.

This should be obvious stuff, but given the way our schools operate it doesnít seem to be. Our children spend inordinate amounts of time in school sitting at their desks, memorizing facts divorced from anything real and meaningful to them, and failing to understand the purpose behind what they are learning. Many donít care because they havenít been inspired or compelled to care. Yet, every child was once so deeply, enthusiastically curious about virtually everything. A mucky vernal pool filled with gelatinous egg masses would spark virtually any childís curiosity. A story about the Wood Frogs all coming out on a warm spring evening to head to the little pool to sing and mate; about the exodus of thousands of babies as the pond dried up; about the winter burrows, aka ďhibernaculum,Ē in which those same frogs might be half frozen but still alive; and about how these animals are part of a food chain that enables so many other bigger, more common and beloved animals to live Ė now thatís a story worth caring about!

But just as I couldnít quite appreciate the more subtle springs in Maine for some time, none of us are likely to search out knowledge about much of anything without a reason to care and without our curiosity piqued, which is the underlying, core necessity for our children in school. And when our children care, everything is possible.


Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and dynamic resources.

Image courtesy of barochschloss via Creative Commons.


Mark Bill
Past Member 4 years ago
Hi, thanks for your great information! Well, it really seems so great.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra6 years ago

Thank you Zoe, for Sharing this!

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson6 years ago

loved this and the comments. thanks

Anita Wischhusen
Anita Wisch6 years ago

When you replace fear with curiosity, we all gain through experiences, and sharing them will help boraden our lives. People fear what they don't understand, but through understanding we become less fearful, and isn't that a better way to live?

Dan P.
Dan Pollard6 years ago

agree...thanks for the article

Edward L.
Edward Loeffler6 years ago

Leonardo di Vinci's main principle in learning was CURIOSITY... he was curious about everything, and it was his curiosity that led to his greatness of spirit and mind.

Joseph H.
Joseph H.6 years ago

It should be a common understanding that NO learning takes place without an emotional context. Nothing brings that out more than participating in the natural world. It is the best possible experience for young children. Unstructured play and integration in the natural world is the foundation for the development of "critical thinking skills." These skills serve as the foundation for academic success and cognitive growth. Get your kids outside, provide them with a safe environment and then let them explore, play and learn....and join in the game with them. Let them get dirty, let them have a scrape or two and let them learn the value of wonder and curiosity As a retired physical educator, I am distressed by the lack of any breadth to the opportunities we provide for our kids in today's technological, data obsessed, test dominated world . We have to do better, and when we do, they will also.

Alice Lewis
Alice Mae L6 years ago

Curiosity is a saving grace for humans. Now, lets take our children and grandchildren out into Nature and let them really look! Let them explore. Show them some of the details their young eyes might miss.( Don't expect them to be that interested in what you say, at least not right away.) Let them have the chance to learn to LOVE MOTHER NATURE! Learn things yourself about our natural world.... then share the knowledge with all our young. This is how they'll grow up to have respect and love for our planet and all living things that we share the world with.

Karen and Ed O.
Karen and Ed O6 years ago

Zoe, you hit the nail on the head and I am so glad you followed it through.
"But we do need motivation to learn new things,..." My experience was not with nature, although I can't count the number of times I have sat by a stream or pond and watched the comings and goings of little creatures.
I can remember being briefly taught about the Civil War, but, of course, it meant nothing to me as it was a long time ago and it was over, wasn't it? Then we visited many battlefields and historic cites and it started me in on reading everything I could about the war, Lincoln and Grant. I'm so glad I did.
I wish kids could learn about nature and history in a way that gets them enthusiastic, but it seems that teachers just don't have time due to mandated tests and discipline and control.
Something has simply got to change.

Chris Cole
Chris C6 years ago

Every child should have a pet and the guidance to learn how to properly care for it.