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Department of Economics

Can we spark children’s curiosity to improve learning? Interview with Sule Alan

EUI Economics Professor Sule Alan discusses a pedagogical intervention that helped learning in elementary school children by fostering their curiosity.

20 May 2024 | Research

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Sule Alan, Professor at the EUI Department of Economics, is the co-author of the article ‘Nurturing Childhood Curiosity to Enhance Learning: Evidence from a Randomized Pedagogical Intervention’, written with Ipek Mumcu from the University of Exeter Business School. The article, published in the American Economic Review, sheds light on a pedagogical intervention that was successful in increasing children’s interest in science and stimulating their curiosity.

Professor Alan, could you please tell us about your main research domain?

I do research on applying behavioural insights into improving social policy. My main interest is education policy. I want to contribute to making education better for children, especially disadvantaged children, and adolescents.

I design experiments and programmes, I test them in the field, and I look at their results. If results are positive, I try to convince governments to scale the programmes up so they could be beneficial to a large public. At the EUI Department of Economics, I teach advanced courses on how to design, implement, and test such programmes. A lot of the EUI PhD researchers that I supervise also work on education related topics. Therefore, we sometimes work together, some EUI researchers are joint authors with me.

You co-authored an article on the design, testing, and implementation of a pedagogical intervention aimed to foster curiosity in school children. Please tell us about your work.

Since I was young, I have always been interested in curiosity. I was a very curious child, but I could not imagine that I would become an academic and work on ways to foster curiosity. Curiosity is not easy to measure. It is recognised as a powerful motivator for learning, but it has not been studied on a large scale within the context of education policy.

Nowadays, there is a big problem with learning, we are facing ‘learning poverty’ worldwide. We bore children by using traditional teaching methods at school, and we make children not curious at all. Moreover, there are problems with children’s hyperactivity in classrooms and these problems obviously also affect teachers.

I believe that learning happens when kids want to learn and when they are happy to learn. Therefore, I wanted to find a way to help teachers in making their pupils happy to learn and curious because, once sparked, curiosity enhances knowledge retention in children.

How did you implement your programme?

I implemented it in my home country: Turkey. I selected 50 primary schools from two provinces located in the southeast of Turkey. Out of the 50 schools, 25 received the programme, while the other 25 did not. I wanted to expand the group of schools, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and I had to interrupt the work. Two years after, I added 84 schools proceeding as with the first group: half of the classes got the programme, the other half did not. The fact of having the first group of 50 schools, where the work started before the pandemic, and the second group of 84 schools, added after the pandemic, allowed to measure both the short-term results from the second group of schools, as well as the medium- and long-term results from the first group. Overall, our combined sample included 134 primary schools with about 11,000 students and 425 teachers.

In every ‘treatment school’, Ipek Mumcu and I gave a specific training to the teachers about how to implement this new pedagogy. In addition to booklets for the pupils on different topics, we had prepared a pedagogical kit for the teachers containing both visual and reading materials to help them practice the pedagogy. The focus was on scientific teaching, which is usually hard for kids.

We aimed at making the learning experience enjoyable with the belief that, at a young age, learning happens in only 10 minutes – what I call ‘a teachable moment’. After that moment, you only need to consolidate and practice what you learnt. Our pedagogical method helps teachers creating ‘teachable moments’ using emotional triggers to hold the children’s attention before the teacher introduces a new and complex topic. For example, before introducing a science topic on the solar system, children watch a short video on the mysteries of space. This helps in capturing their attention and creating a ‘teachable moment’. Mystery, but also comedy, surprise, or fear, produce ‘emotional triggers’ and help in creating those teachable moments.

Can you explain us more in details how you worked and what the results of your intervention were?

We created eight booklets covering a wide range of topics that interest children: sports, space, animals, science, cartoons, vehicles, the human body, and history (Roman heroes and similar historic themes). Firstly, we went to classrooms with the booklets and a basket full of small gifts that we distributed to the children: hair bands, football chains, nice stationery. Afterwards, we very briefly presented each booklet to the children underlying that they contain some incredible facts. This aimed to create a sense of ‘information deprivation’ - a strong urge to know - in children. Afterwards, we asked the children to rank the booklets according to their interests and to decide how many gifts they would be willing to give away to purchase their preferred booklet. This was our measure of their degree of the urge to acquire information. We told the kids that we might honour their desires, or not. 

In some classrooms, we followed the desires of the children, while in others we distributed the booklets randomly. This second way of proceeding allowed us to monitor the exchanges that children having the booklets started to have with one another, so that they would finally get the booklet they wanted, as well as the strategies put in place by the kids without booklets – those who did not have any ‘bargaining power’. We gave booklets to half of the classroom only (the ‘treatment group’), while we kept the other half hungry for knowledge (the ‘control group’).

One week later, we ambushed the classroom and tested every pupil on the notions covered in the booklets. We found out that even the children who did not receive any booklet had acquired some knowledge. The effect of the intervention on the knowledge retention of the children was striking.

Which were the three most successful booklets? And which emotional strategies worked better for creating ‘teachable moments’?

The most successful booklet was the one on animals, as young children love animals. The space booklet was also very popular. And, of course, the sport one, especially for boys.

In terms of strategies to raise emotions and create ‘teachable moments’, mystery worked very well. To give you an example, we had hidden some information in a mysterious closed box. Kids wanted to know what was inside, but we ignored them until the point that we could not manage their excitement anymore. We opened the box, which contained a related object, and said: “There are eight planets in the solar system; the biggest one is Jupiter”. Thanks to the emotions created by that moment, we can be certain that the children will remember this information.

Comedy was also successful. We once had a teacher who entered the classroom with small pieces of paper containing curricular information stuck on her hair, or on a tail, or hanging from an open umbrella; these were some of the tricks we used to create funny moments in the classrooms. I can say that fun, mystery, and comedy were very effective strategies for kids to learn and remember.

Is it correct that peer learning played an important role in the classrooms?

We initially did not plan to measure any ‘peer learning effect’. However, while the work was ongoing, we found out that not only the children who received our programme learnt more, but also the others. The peer learning effect allowed a more efficient information dissemination in the treated classrooms. For example, a child who had the space booklet screamed in the class ‘’Sunset on Mars is blue”. This created a surprise effect, all children in the class heard that sunset on Mars is blue and retained the information.

A group of curious children not only learn more, but also help other kids in learning more, thanks to the peer learning effect. Peer learning is important at every age, and it becomes even more significant as an adult, for example in the case of our EUI PhD researchers who learn so much from one another.

Learning for kids is hard at the beginning, as you need to put a lot of cognitive effort into it. If teachers can turn learning into an enjoyable experience, that is way more effective. I believe that, if you want your children to learn better, you must put emotions into the learning process. However, after learning happens, then comes the necessity to practice the knowledge acquired - what we call the ‘deliberate practice’.

This pedagogical intervention is very promising, and it can be applied to many disciplines and in many countries.

Our pedagogical intervention focused on science teaching. However, it is also applicable to other disciplines, as the mechanism for learning is the same in all fields.

I tested this approach in Turkey, but this methodology can be applied everywhere. That is why I recently presented our work in a conference with teachers coming from all over Europe. The plan is to train as many teachers as possible with our methodology. I enjoy training teachers and teachers love when they see a trainer proposing a different approach.

What was the feedback of the teachers involved in your research? And what, in your opinion, makes a teacher successful?

Teachers who applied this methodology gave very positive feedback, saying that this programme made their teaching much more enjoyable and effective for children as well as more enjoyable for themselves.

I believe that good teachers are those who are curious, engaged, and passionate about the topics they teach. Those teachers can transmit their engagement to their students who become curious about the subjects themselves. The reason why some teachers are better than others, even with the same amount of knowledge, is because some care more about student learning than others, and they will do everything they can to engage their students. One of the things that engage students it to tap into their natural curiosity, and that comes with positive emotions.

How important is curiosity not only for children, but for all of us?

Curiosity is extremely important. We should all be curious. Curious people live longer, they are healthier, and they are less likely to suffer from depression and dementia. Curiosity means holding on to life, loving life and learning, and wanting to learn more gives you the joy of life. We should all foster curiosity. I would say that curiosity is addictive and contagious.


Read the full article ‘Nurturing Childhood Curiosity to Enhance Learning: Evidence from a Randomized Pedagogical Intervention’, by Sule Alan and Ipek Mumcu, published in the American Economic Review.


Last update: 20 May 2024

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