The Impact Of Technology On Curiosity
by Terry Heick
Curiosity is the “complex feeling and cognition that accompanies a desire to learn what is unknown,” according to Min Jeong Kang and fellow researchers in a 2009 study. Neurological research here focused on, among other areas, the difference in neural activity when answers are presented, and when questions are presented for both high-curiosity and low-curiosity questions.
What they found (in addition to dilated pupils when answers to questions with high curiosity levels were revealed), was revealing: the “desired level of knowledge increases sharply with a small increase in knowledge, so that the gap between this desired level and the actual knowledge grows.” (Kang, et. al 2009). And conversely, once one is ‘sufficiently knowledgeable,’ the desire for new information decreases. This suggests that a little learning should, neurologically, cause the desire for more learning.
This idea—the proportional relationship between knowing and wanting to know–is the foundation of what is known as the information-gap theory. Of course, most teachers can tell you that it’s not that simple.
How Much Knowledge Is Enough?
Admittedly, this all begs the question: how does a student—especially a younger student taking in content and ‘essential questions’ and standards they’ve never heard of and thus incapable of natural curiosity about—know when they’ve learned enough? The research never went into this sociological question, but it likely has something to do with norm-referencing with chosen social groups.
When learners look around, what knowledge level do they see? And what markers do they have to measure knowledge in others? This awareness on the part of learners, coupled with extrinsic motivation and pressure from parents, teachers, etc., together likely form a sort of baseline of what is ‘enough knowledge.’
Of course, technology and social media create a thousand potential communities where before there may have been five. So the internal ‘measuring up’ by students is relentless. Instead of home, school, a few groups of friends, sports teams, and perhaps religious affiliation, technology has offered up an almost infinite number of potential social groups for students to plug-in to, making the ‘measurement of wisdom’–which isn’t as crazy as it sounds–frantic, absolutely secondary, and nearly impossible.
And when you factor in that, via technology, rather than six ‘content areas,’ students see a dizzying digital kaleidoscope of data and stimuli at any given moment, things can unravel–or at least accelerate–very quickly.
3 Different Types of Curiosity
The study noted multiple types of curiosity, including sensory and knowledge-based (epistemic). The latter involves desiring data or discovery, while the former involves the desire to “avoid boredom or sensory deprivation.”
Visual Stimuli: Wanting to see something
Semantic Narratives: e.g., Television shows, literary drama
Social information: e.g., Gossip, social media and other ‘semantic narratives’
Here, researchers in the study were careful to (briefly) note the impact of technology on curiosity. In the information age, (connected) students are constantly in the presence of extraordinary–by definition, unnatural—amounts of data and potential experience that have existed at no time in human history. Which has changed when, why, and how curiosity happens.
The Impact Of Technology On Curiosity
Curiosity, likely an evolutionary adaptive, was a raw appetite for information that helped us survive. But that same aggressive appetite for information and experience changes in the face of information abundance.
The simple swipe of a finger can invoke a literal flood of information, new faces and communities, digital simulations, and other Visual, Semantic, and Social stimuli. In fact, it even attacks them passively through a barrage of messages and push notifications that interrupt any opportunity for reflection. And it’s not just about social media, apps, and video games. The blinking, streaming, always-on digital landscape threatens even the most single-minded approach to research.
Even an ‘on-task’ student must navigate media, communities, and social rules that churn endlessly. This creates, among other things, a dynamic digital—and thus cognitive—environment in which users have to constantly be aware of what they do and do not know, which sounds interesting until you realize that the technology is designed for engagement. So then, designed to pull you rather than let you, muting the need to be self-aware.
Gamification, notifications, content titles, click-throughs, likes, suggested videos, and other modern realities seek to, perhaps unwittingly, replace curiosity with artificial pathways that don’t just challenge a student to ‘stay on task,’ but can seemingly discredit traditional research–and the work behind it–and study as stodgy, staid, or irrelevant.
The impact on curiosity here is certainly predictable.
Further at work here is the atmosphere of most outcomes-based instructional design. When the learning topics, methods, tools, and patterns are chosen for the student, there is little need for curiosity. Instead, it is ‘encouraged’ by verbal pleadings, awkward incentives (money for ‘good grades’), or weak admonishments to ‘predict’ what might happen in the book they didn’t choose based on the knowledge level they were unaware of in the class they didn’t sign up for.
In these cases, curiosity is reduced to intermittent engagement, true rigor becomes awkward, and students constantly seek the comfort of social reinforcement, admittedly entertaining diversions, and a magical search engine that they pray identifies for them the macro relevance of entirely human perspective that technology is blind to.
The Blind Spots Of Technology
Technology is designed to create pleasing stimuli that manufacture curiosity for the student. If the headline or user interface don’t reach right out and grab you by the throat, it doesn’t stand a chance in the modern digital landscape.
Further, with the natural churn of social groups, social networks, and habits of those groups on those networks, users have trouble ever finding stable ground to measure what they know against those around them, keeping the information-gap theory constantly off-balance, and ultimately stifling enduring curiosity.
None of this means that technology is bad. Nor is this simply a cautionary tale warning of technology’s silent design elements and related talents. Rather, this is an argument for curiosity in its natural ecology. The media form—book or YouTube video, twitter stream or mathematical treatise in extended prose—matters less than the health and balance of that ecology.
For many teachers, giving students ‘a little’ information doesn’t necessarily lead to students ‘begging for more.’ Instead, that ‘little bit’ of stimuli chokes or bores them, leading to a kind of apparent apathy. This was likely the case way before iPads and smartphones were dropped in the laps of so many at critical stages of brain development. But unlike the days of disconnected teachers and mind-numbing textbooks, technology has afforded keys to the universe.
So when students still exhibit apathy in the face of that universe, panic may be appropriate.
But perhaps, technology has created an awful, terrible illusion of knowledge, where users equate access with possession. If curiosity is indeed the “complex feeling and cognition that accompanies a desire to learn what is unknown,” what happens when students don’t know what they don’t know?
When they are no longer able to judge when they’re ‘sufficiently knowledgeable’? When their digital landscape dances with only vacant metaphors of understanding and wisdom? When they think they can ‘Google it’ at anytime? And when they look around them, everyone else is doing all of the same things? What then?
Perhaps then as educators we should start there by creating compelling visualizations, narratives, and dialogues about what there is to know–what’s worth understanding, and why.
About the iterative nature of wisdom, and the limitations of technology.
About the interdependence of family and community, and the crucial and uniquely human ability to ask the right question at the right time.
*previously published at TeachThought.com