If it wasn’t curiosity, what did kill the cat?

In 2006 Professor Dr. Ugur Şahin, an oncologist was working on a curiosity-driven research project to help find out if it might be possible to develop a vaccine to control and destroy cancerous tumours by activating the body’s own immune system. This approach was fundamentally different to the more common treatments of radiation and chemotherapy. Curiosity driven projects often have no clear goal but allow scientists to take risks and explore the art of the possible.

In 2008 Dr. Ugur Sahin and his wife Ozlem Tureci founded a small biotech company called BioNTech who you may never have heard of, if it wasn’t for COVID-19. Because together with Pfizer, BioNTech are the suppliers of the first Covid vaccine to be used in the UK. That early curiosity driven research in 2006 provided Sahin and Tureci with the answers to our 2020 problem.

Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning – William Arthur Ward
Curiosity is the desire to know or learn something in the absence of extrinsic rewards. The point being, there is no reward other than the answer itself. It is a psychological trait and because of that, has a genetic component, some people are just born more curious. However, nurture has an equally important role to play, and although it’s argued you can’t teach curiosity you can encourage people to become more curious by using different techniques. See below.

Sophie von Stumm, a professor of Psychology in Education from the University of York believes that curiosity is so important in terms of academic performance that it should sit alongside intelligence and effort (conscientiousness) as a third pillar. Her research found that intelligence, effort and curiosity are key attributes of exceptional students.

Curiosity follows an inverted U-shape when shown in graphical form. Imagine a graph, along the horizontal axis we have knowledge and on the vertical, curiosity. When we first come across a new subject, we know very little and as such our curiosity rises as does the level of dopamine, but as we find out more and more our curiosity will reach a peak before ultimately falling.

“When you’re curious you find lots of interesting things to do.” Walt Disney

Curiosity types – it would be far too simplistic to think that there is only one type of curiosity. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist talks about a few of them in his book Why? What Makes Us Curious.

  • Epistemic curiosity is the one we have been talking about so far and relates to the type of curiosity that drives research and education. It’s generally a pleasurable state, the result of a release of dopamine that comes from mastery and the anticipation of reward.
  • Perceptual curiosity is primal and exists on a continuum between fear and satisfaction. it’s the curiosity we feel when something surprises us or when we get an answer that doesn’t quite fit with what we expected. The motivation is to seek out something novel although the curiosity will diminish with continued exposure.
  • Diversive curiosity is transient and superficial and is often experienced when swiping through you Twitter feed. Its effectively a means of jumping from topic to topic and normally fails to result in any form of meaningful insight or understanding.

You might think that as we grow older, we become less curious simply because we know more. However, although we may lose some elements of diversive curiosity or the ability to be surprised, research shows that epistemic curiosity remains roughly constant across all age groups

But why?
The roots to curiosity can be traced back to a form of neoteny, an evolutionary condition that means although we reach maturity, we retain juvenile characteristics. Effectively we are more childlike than other mammals, continuing to be curious and playful throughout our lives. You can often tell if people are curios by looking at their eyes, which will become more dilated. This indicates that noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter has been released in the brainstem’s locus coeruleus, the part of the brain most strongly linked to arousal, vigilance, and attention. In addition, noradrenaline is also integral to a number of higher cognitive functions ranging from motivation to working memory and therefore hugely valuable for learning.

This may well be a slightly complicated way of saying that if you are curious about something, you are more likely to pay attention, making it easier to remember and in so doing learn.

How to become more curious

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.” Bernard Baruch

Research into curiosity has confirmed some of what we might have already assumed to be correct, for example in a paper published in 2009, it concluded that people were more likely to recall answers to questions they were especially curious about. However it also showed that curiosity increased when answers were guessed incorrectly, suggesting that surprise was a factor in improved retention.

“I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others.” Socrates

The concept that curiosity is based on an Information gap was first put forward by George Loewenstein in 1994 which leads to one of the most powerful tools we can use to improve curiosity, asking questions. The best question to ask is probably WHY, but don’t forget Kipling’s other 5 honest serving men, WHAT, WHEN, HOW, WHERE and WHO. Below are a few more ideas.

  • Ask Socratic questions. This involves asking open ended questions that provoke a meaningful exploration of the subject, this process sits at the heart of critical thinking.
  • Create environments that promote curiosity. Challenges that need solving require a curious mind. Case studies are also more of interest, providing several different routes to explore.
  • Guess the answer first. As mentioned above, if you guess first it increases the surprise factor. Loewenstein also argued that guessing with feedback stimulates curiosity because it highlights the gap between what you thought you knew and the correct answer.
  • Failure is feedback. Finding out why you got something wrong can be just as interesting as knowing that you are right, it certainly increases curiosity.
  • Start with the curious part of a subject. You may not be curious about the whole subject, but try to find the part you are interested in and start there.

And if you would like to find out more

What’s the answer, what did kill the cat?

it was IGNORANCE…………

The Covid gap year – a catalyst for change

At times it might seem difficult to find the positives in the current Covid crises but there are some. We may have had to change our travel plans but are benefiting from cleaner air and more time, staying closer to home is leading to a greater sense of community, and social media which was becoming ever more toxic has been used by many to keep in touch with friends and family. But how long will we continue to enjoy these healthy bi-products when we can jump on that aeroplane, tweet something without thinking and once again time becomes scarce, consumed by work. The downside is it can so easily revert back to how it was before.

However, some changes are likely to become permanent, people are beginning to call what comes after Covid the new norm, a kind of normality, familiar and yet different. We have all been given a glimpse of the future or to be precise the future has been brought forward not as a blurry image but with startling clarity because we are living it.

Change is easy
On the whole it’s difficult to get people to change their behaviour but if you change the environment it’s a different story. If we had asked people if they wanted to work from home they would have had to guess what it would be like, imagining not having to travel, imagining not seeing colleagues in the wok place but if you are forced into doing it, you experience it for real. And that’s what’s happened, people may not have chosen to work from home but having experienced it the change will be faster.

Neurologically a habit or learning for that matter takes place when you do something repeatedly. In 1949 Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuroscientist noted that once a circuit of neurons is formed, when one neuron fires so do the others, effectively strengthening the whole circuit. This has become known as Hebbian theory or Hebbs law and leads to long term potentiation, (LTP).

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Habits are patterns that can be thought of as grooves created over time by repetition but once formed they are hard to get out of, the deeper the groove, the less we think about it at a conscious level. But if you change the environment you are forcing the brain to reconsider those habits, effectively moving you out of that particular groove until you form another one. The secret is of course to create good habits and remove bad ones.

Many are suggesting that working from home will become far more common, Google and Facebook have already announced that they do not need their employees to go back into offices until at least the end of 2020, but who knows what that groove will be like by then. The other big changes on the horizon with potential for long term impact are, the reduction in the use of cash as appose to contactless, online shopping already popular will see a more drastic reshaping of the high street and studying online becoming a new way of learning. Education has seen one of the biggest changes arguably since we have had access to the internet with 1.3 billion students from 186 countries across the world now having to learn remotely. Even before COVID-19, global EdTech investment was $18.7 billion and the overall market for online education is projected to reach $350 Billion by 2025. (source WEF).

This is what school in China looks like during coronavirus.

Changing attitudes to study
Given the choice 1.3 billion students would not have all agreed to study online but Covid-19 has made this a reality within a matter of months. Its an environmental change on a massive scale. The argument that online learning is better remains complex and confusing, requiring a clearer understanding of what is being measured and a much longer time period under which it can be evaluated. There are for example claims that retention rates are higher by somewhere between 25% – 60% but I would remain sceptical despite its appeal and apparent common sense logic.

Instead focus on your own learning, think less of how much more difficult it is to concentrate staring at a computer screen rather than being in a classroom and embrace the process. You are in a new “groove” and as a result it’s not going to feel comfortable.

Covid Gap year
Why not make 2020 your Covid Gap year. UCAS says that one of the benefits of a gap year is that it “offers you the opportunity to gain skills and experiences, while giving you time to reflect and focus on what you want to do next”. It’s the changing environment in terms of geography, people, doing things that you might not have chosen that makes the gap year so worthwhile, and despite what people say when they return, it wasn’t enjoyable all of the time, you do get bored and frustrated but it can open your mind to new possibilities and ironically lockdown can do the same.

Online learning is a new environment, view it through the spectrum of new skills and experiences and only when you reflect back should you decide on how valuable it might have been.

The self-isolating learner – a new mindset

COVID-19 is forcing everyone to make changes, effortlessly disrupting routine and future plans, for many students the exams you have been working towards may well have been cancelled or alternative methods of assessment announced, and your School, University or College will have closed its doors for an unspecified period of time. With what could be described as a Dunkirk spirit many educational establishments have achieved what would have seemed impossible, a shift from face to face lectures and a physical campus-based mentality to a virtual learning environment.

If you are continuing to study, doing it remotely might be a brand-new experience and although it will mean some changes what remains the same is the way we learn. In fact, one of the biggest challenges is in not wasting time, something ironically because of the restrictions we now all have a lot more of. This new virtual learning can take many different forms, the platform will most likely be one of the following, Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Brightspace but there are others. Content will be delivered via any one or a combination of, live webcast, instructionally designed eLearning, video or simply tagged learning materials. All of them however require a positive approach to self-study.

Tips to studying when working from home

Prepare a Timetable – without the discipline of the classroom or a formal schedule you will need something to help manage your time. A timetable can seem unnecessary for experienced students but the process of preparing one will give you a mental picture of the tasks and challenges ahead. It should include important learning activities and tests that need completing and by when. Don’t underestimate how long something will take, learning is not an exact science so don’t forget to build in a buffer. Also make sure you include breaks and non-study time – just not too many.

Create a learning space – most students prefer a quiet place with little distraction in which to study. This may of course be difficult in a busy household but try and find a space and use the same one every day. If noise is a problem consider a headset with low volume classical or instrumental music playing in the background. Avoid listening to songs with lyrics as it can break your concentration.
Next remove as many distractions as possible. This will of course mean putting your mobile phone away, also turn off any alerts, the noise is enough to create what is called a “dopamine bump”, a short pleasurable sensation which will make it almost impossible for you not to check your messages. Contrary to popular student culture, multi-tasking doesn’t work. You may feel as if you’re watching Game of Thrones and answering a question at the same time, in reality you are simply swapping attention between two competing activities, which is tiring and reduces levels of concentration.

Don’t study for too long or cramCramming can work in those later stages of revision, the problem when learning and not revising is it overloads short term memory resulting in you forgetting something from the day before. Little and often is the secret to effective study. We don’t have any hard evidence as to the optimum period of study but most believe something around one and a half hours works best. After your session make sure you have a reasonable break, 10, 20 or even 30 minutes, grab a cup of coffee or take a walk outside, it’s important to physically move. There is a lot of evidence to show that exercise helps improve concentration and the ability to focus on specific tasks.

Question practice is key – Although attempting questions can seem a little disheartening, especially if you get something wrong it is one of the most effective methods of learning. The process of answering a question involves what we call retrieval practice forcing the brain to think back over what has previously been learned and in so doing transferring knowledge into long term memory.

Keep in contact with others – fellow students can be a real help when it comes to clarifying problems or just giving moral support. Also don’t forget your University or College, they will be only too pleased to support you, with many providing, forums, technical help and direct contact with your lecturer/teacher.

Develop a positive mindset – working alone can result in moments of self-doubt which can turn to worry and or stress. The important point is that both of these are perfectly normal reactions to a challenging situation. There is a view that worry is simply the way in which the brain moves something up your list of priorities. Lists are a great way of dealing with worry, simply write down what you are worried about and turn it into an action. Remember a certain amount of stress can also be good, its continual long-term stress that can cause problems.
Drink lots of water and as mentioned above build exercise into your daily routine, it’s a great antidote to stress and who knows you might not only pass your next exam but end up with a six pack as well.

If you would like to find out more about studying from home, here is a short video.