Triggering Curiosity in the Learning Environment: Staff and Student Collaboration

Rebecca Thomas, Lecturer on the MA in Higher Education Practice, University of East Anglia (formerly Programme Leader of Photography at the University of Hertfordshire and coordinator of Teaching and Learning in the School of Creative Arts).

Art studio


This article explores the notion of curiosity in relation to educational practice. The piece draws on several key studies of the psychology and definition of curiosity, whilst focusing on the author’s continuing engagement with the issue of promoting curiosity and enthusiasm amongst creative arts staff. The text looks at a series of workshops for cross-discipline staff carried out at the University of Hertfordshire during 2015-2016, and their further development in a session with similar staff held at Central Saint Martins, London, in July 2017. In the former, a collaborative approach to the making of creative practice was developed and discussed; in the latter the possibility of fostering a curiosity-led teaching practice was proposed and further explored. Both cases involve a commitment to enthusing the school or university teacher to regard curiosity as a central motivating force.

It has been suggested that “higher education leaders should examine how to create environments that may best nurture a student’s level of curiosity.” (Hulme et al., 2013:53) Accounts of what exactly curiosity might be are many and varied. A highly-influential strand of thought on the matter is that pioneered by the psychologist Daniel Berlyne, whose work, along with that of his followers and critics, might give us a way of thinking about curiosity in relation to teaching in the art educational context, particularly the role of asking questions of the students in the hope of generating a “curious” response. As Berlyne remarks:

the skilful lecturer excites curiosity in his audience by putting questions to them, perhaps about familiar phenomena, which it has never occurred to them to ask themselves.


Berlyne notes that one of the central determining factors in producing curiosity is the desire to resolve psychological conflicts, when, for example, the subject encounters difficulties in terms of how to successfully negotiate novel circumstances. This may be in relation to a specific, localised zone of interest or in an individual’s day-to-day life. Gaps in knowledge lead to internal conflicts, in turn encouraging the subject to become curious about how to proceed; if the questioning and reconsideration is successfully dealt with the pain produced by the subject’s conflicted drives is alleviated. Thus curiosity is, in this post-Freudian model of operation, at least partly a question of tension-relief, as well as being a means to get oneself out of a rut. As Berlyne (1954:187) observes, “the drive produced…by conflict can only rightly be called ‘curiosity’ or a ‘drive to know’ if it is reduced by the process of knowledge-rehearsal”.

Here, then, we have a working definition of curiosity which assigns to it an arguably essential role within the broader picture of not only “human interest”, but in generally negotiating the world, and within the necessary stabilising of the conflicted human subject. Various other psychological accounts of curiosity’s function and formation may be found in academic research – see, for example, Voss and Keller (1983), Loewenstein (1994), Ball (2013), all of whom pick up on Berlyne’s seminal investigations without developing them in any substantial way.

One point to note, however, is that the activity of being curious does not always carry a positive weight. With respect to the curiosity and interest exercised by the Sirens upon Ulysses and his crew in Homer’s Odyssey, St Augustine employed the derogatory term “ocular lust”, and David Hume considered that, while curiosity was an essential attribute of scientific discovery, there also existed a version of it which he described as “an insatiable desire for knowing the actions and circumstances of [one’s] neighbours” (both cited in Loewenstein, 1994:76).

Hulme et al (2013:54) summarise curiosity as “a willingness to explore the unknown, embrace novelty, and accept uncertainty”. The authors suggest there are two main approaches to curiosity among students. One group is comprised of students who are “interested in learning for learning’s sake” (2013:55); the second group adopts a more utilitarian approach. Hulme et al. refer to the latter as “performance-oriented” students, as they focus their curiosity so as to “explore information that would result in a good grade or extrinsic reward” and, as an individual involved in these authors’ research put it, aim at providing “faculty members [with] what they wanted” (2013:56). The second group is more conformist than the former, “disinterested” group and want to minimise the taking of risks, since their main aim is to improve their grades. Hulme et al. also discuss the staff’s approach to teaching and the bearing this has on the students. They note that the:

performance-oriented [approach] seemed to resonate with performance-oriented teachers who clearly outlined how to receive an A in class and valued the desire to meet the stated requirements. Even when…students expressed a natural curiosity about the subject matter, if the faculty member had a performance orientation, they were more likely to emphasize the importance of taking the necessary steps in order to achieve a good grade in class.


They also emphasise that

curiosity is contagious and can only be truly taught by individuals who are willing to embrace novelty and risk-taking. The first step of any programmatic emphasis on curiosity must be to encourage each professional to develop his or her own unique interests.


These authors are therefore keen to promote not only student curiosity for its own sake, but to do this within an institutional space in which staff who are themselves inherently curious can exercise this without feeling always obliged to keep to narrowly-defined module criteria. “Every student”, they write, “can develop a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity if those in…authority demonstrate the same behaviour…[by] responding to students’ questions with the phrase ‘I don’t know, what do you think’ ” (2013:62). Furthermore, the encouragement of curiosity for its own sake ultimately contributes to such factors as whether or not students choose to continue their studies up through the ranks of higher education:

curious students tend to pursue uncertainty…discovery, and perform better in school. Developing curiosity in students may produce higher levels of engagement, thus increasing the desire to matriculate through the entire higher education experience.


Neurological studies show that the brain’s limbic reward system indicates that a chemical change occurs when we become curious, leading to greater brain activity (Kidd and Hayden 2015). Encouraging curiosity as an end in itself carries the benefit of promoting further institutional commitment too, something not to be ignored in these times of declining student numbers in the visual arts (Dawood:2017: 2).

Opdal (2001: 331) has made an important distinction between curiosity and wonder. Whereas the former involves the attempt to discover something, the latter is a condition in which “one is struck by the strangeness or peculiarity of the things met”. The problem with wonder is that it may not take us very far. Curiosity, observes Opdal, “is a motive that operates within definite frameworks and can be satisfied through using standard procedures” (2001:331), whereas wonder “always points to something beyond the accepted rules. Because of this, the feeling of being overwhelmed, or the experience of humbleness and even awe could accompany it” (2001:331). I experienced this slippage between different states myself when I took a group of photography students to Bayfordbury Observatory in Hertfordshire in 2013, where I had arranged for an astronomical photographer to discuss his work, and for the group to attach cameras to the telescope and take relatively close-up photos of the Moon’s surface. In this context students experienced wonder and awe, which for a time enthused them, though unlike curiosity this fairly soon diminished; wonder is an important threshold experience but it is static, a kind of trap. The issue at hand is how to go beyond wonder to reach a constant process of asking questions, forging a critical approach to the very thing that has overwhelmed or excited us.

University of Hertfordshire Staff/Student Workshops 2015-16

In March 2015 I organised three staff workshops (later adapted for student participation), respectively entitled “About and Through: Student Inspiration within Creative Arts”, “Cut Away the Clouds”, and “Around and About”. These workshops, attended by three different groups of staff were my response to staff requests for activities that would focus on the practical aspects of motivating students. Whilst planning these workshop, I talked to staff and one lecturer with extensive teaching experience said that he “would like to see workshops capture [his] intuitive responses [and allow] for the unexpected, and [take] a creative approach”, a view with which a number of other staff concurred. In response, I used the workshops to produce a “collaborative text”, a project in which staff and students would work together on an open-ended, large-scale book-like structure, looking at issues such as motivation, perseverance and curiosity. Staff module reports indicate curiosity is a fundamental aspect of education. In my experience and that of colleagues, students often have interesting ideas about what being curious might mean, although they do not always put them into practice. I felt that if staff themselves considered curiosity and related themes we would more easily be able to help students to become actively engaged. In the workshops many staff members contributed to a very lively discussion around enquiry, motivation and the means by which we might get students to push their work into new territories.

For the first workshop a fine art studio was used for the project, partly to assert a clear connection with historical art school concerns, including the highly politicised environment of art school activism in the 1960s-1980s. In our current institutions, increasingly driven by corporate values, there is a pressing need for a space in which staff from several art-based disciplines can meet to produce an alternative manifesto of shared concerns (Ball, 2004:16). We looked at a range of posters from Hornsey School of Art in the late 1960s, staff finding this material very inspiring. Two important volumes relating to art education, the collectively-authored volume on The Hornsey Affair (1969) and that by Madge and Weinberger (1973) were considered. As a tutor involved in the project remarked, “I think this is a really exciting approach” also emphasising the “superb energy” he felt was being generated through this collaboration.

As the first workshop had established how helpful it was to use posters in our enquiry, I requested that staff ask their students to answer the question “What inspired the best piece of work you created this year?” From the information gathered a new series of posters (made by a small group of staff) was collated and presented to staff. Following this, further staff-student discussions took place focusing on what might help the students become enthusiastic and engaged. One contributor described the posters as “collaborative artefact[s] to fill a gap identified by staff responding to the processes already underway...[the] collaborators and co-creators [developing a productive] idea together”.

In the third workshop Creative Arts staff assessed the project so far; we did this by looking at the material we had gathered and adding a further layer of commentary and critique. These discussions formed the basis for a large-scale, gallery-based collaborative text (a combination of words and images), held two months later. This event lasted a whole day and included a sound piece in which a voice was heard to ask questions such as “Do you interact with your students?”, ”What’s the best thing about being here?”, and “What do you hope to achieve?”, to which the participants were expected to respond in a lively and unhindered way. A large blank roll of paper was mounted on the gallery wall and participants could work wherever they pleased. Three months later the paper roll was exhibited in the University gallery as a part of a semi-sculptural display in an exhibition entitled Writing the Room (2016). Within the folds of the roll tiny speakers emitted a range of staff and student voices discussing aspects of the educational themes we had been tracking throughout the year, the whole forming a kind of archive or storehouse of our research.

This show was an important instance of bringing together staff and students and making their achievements visible to all. The consensus amongst staff was that this process re-energised those involved as well as reminding them that in order to operate successfully at a professional level it is helpful to maintain one’s creativity and curiosity, and to constantly refurbish these ”interests”. This important realisation was in its turn given formal recognition through the development of a new course module at the University of Hertfordshire entitled Experimental Projects, running throughout the whole academic year. An illustrated booklet accompanying the module handbook provided strategies for visual research and creative learning. An important strand of the module drew attention to issues of curiosity through a question and answer process. The questions included: “What is curiosity?”, “What is curiosity for?”, “Why are you curious?”, “Can curiosity be taught?”, and “Is there a spectrum of curiosity?”To these the students produced a broad range of responses, including “curiosity is an intellectual experience as well as an emotional drive”, “a sense of wonder”, “enthusiasm, motivation, inspiration and exploration”, and ‘You have to be curious to be creative and experimental”.

In the present climate, with the increasing emphasis on student employability and academic achievement over experimentation and creative risk-taking within art education, the space needed to promote and sustain curiosity is diminished, subjected to pressures brought into play by the marketisation of education in the UK.

The work that I have done in 2017 has greatly benefited from insights gained in the University of Hertfordshire sessions mentioned above, particularly my recognition of the key importance of staff-to-staff communication. With this in mind I have in the 2017 sessions, addressed the matter of how to encourage a more curiosity-led outlook among University of East Anglia teaching staff, producing workshops in which staff have experimented with drawing objects, but in a set-up in which the normal act of observation is deliberately frustrated. This approach comes partially from Berlyne (1954), who argued that curiosity is enhanced when there is a gap in knowledge or information; when something is missing the mind seeks to determine what is absent, or what an indeterminate thing might be. Berlyne’s theory concerns subliminal psychological drives and the release of tensions that come from solving the puzzle of what the obscured entity actually is. The matter of attending to novel situations also plays a part in his account. The purpose of working with staff in this fashion is to encourage a change or emphasis of approach that will hopefully be transmitted to the students they teach.

ELIA conference workshop, Central Saint Martins 2017

In July 2017, I led a version of the University of East Anglia workshop as part of the European League Institution of the Arts conference, held at Central Saint Martins. I asked the participants (Creative Arts staff attending from 35 Universities worldwide) to spend fifteen minutes sketching, with the aid of a magnifying glass, a personal object supplied by a fellow collaborator, something carried about them on an everyday basis. The item, as mentioned above was partly obscured by being placed in a translucent box, in an attempt to add a layer of intrigue and inventiveness to the exercise. Mounting the drawings on the wall, the group was asked to discuss whether or not they thought making these drawings helped them to take on a curious, investigative stance, as it were removing the object from the stream of its everyday usage by this three-part act of isolation. The desire was to find out what would happen when “thinking outside the box”, in this case literally. A discovery made when something is pushed in new directions is one potential definition of curiosity – a playful urge to encounter new situations and new ways of framing commonplace concerns. This opening-up towards other approaches to seeing is somewhat in the spirit of Brookfield’s (2017) ‘four lenses of critical reflection’. To conclude the session we considered Brookfield’s ‘four lenses’ and discussed how what we might take away with us from the workshop may be applied practically in a range of teaching situations.

From my own observations during teaching, as well as from staff feedback on these workshops it is clear that such activities as I have described can energise staff in a positive way. Their enthusiasm and openness is, in turn, conveyed to the students, with an accompanying increase in collective morale. But with the recognised challenge to the arts and humanities it is practically impossible to consistently maintain this level of engagement, though we must surely try to inject such positive, rewarding and upbeat interventions into the educational field.

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