International Journal of Early Years Education Vol. 15, No. 2, June 2007, pp. 141–159
Teachers’ and parents’ conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration Amy Chak* Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong email@example.com Dr 00000June AmyChak 2007 International 10.1080/09669760701288690 CIEY_A_228773.sgm 0966-9760 Original Taylor 22007 15 and & Article Francis (print)/1469-8463 Francis Journal of Early (online) Years Education
Although curiosity is a characteristic often observed in young children, it has not received much academic interest in recent years. Among its many dimensions, the epistemic nature of curiosity, or the quest for knowledge, deserves attention. To explore the potential application of ‘epistemic curiosity’, it is important to understand how lay conceptions complement theoretical conceptualizations. As people who are significant in organizing children’s environment, how teachers and parents view curiosity is essential to how they will respond to the manifestation of this characteristic in children. A questionnaire was developed to examine teachers’ and parents’ conception of children’s curiosity and exploratory behavior and whether they value this characteristic. The participants of this study were preschool teachers and parents with a preschool-age child. The findings indicated that the participants have a positive view toward curiosity and exploration and that teachers are more willing than parents to encourage this characteristic in young children. A factor analysis indicated that teachers’ and parents’ conceptualization of curiosity is multi-dimensional, showing some similarities with theoretical conceptualization.
Introduction The research described in this paper was designed to explore the relationship between parents’ and practitioners’ lay theories of the role of curiosity in children’s development and education compared with theoretical accounts in the research literature. It is argued that this type of study can shed new light on our conceptual understanding of curiosity and offer insights as to whether or not parents and educators see encouraging curiosity in young children as a legitimate educational goal. Curiosity is often described as a natural and notable characteristic of young children, yet it has not received much attention in the fields of child development and pedagogy. In everyday situations, teachers and parents are probably ambivalent about signs of curious behavior, manifested through endless questions by preschool*Department of Early Childhood Education, Hong Kong Institute of Education, 10 Lo Ping Road, Tai Po, N.T., Hong Kong. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org ISSN 0966-9760 (print)/ISSN 1469-8463 (online)/07/020141–19 © 2007 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/09669760701288690
142 A. Chak ers and by toddlers ‘getting into’ everything. As a characteristic that is encountered daily, is curiosity worth encouraging? Being significant in organizing the environment of children, the views that parents and teachers hold of curiosity are essential to how they respond to the manifestation of this characteristic. Young children’s curiosity and exploration, which are expressions of their eagerness to know, if nurtured, can be a key motivational force for the acquisition of knowledge. Although generally being neglected in pedagogy, attempts have been made to encourage curiosity and exploration in the classroom and at home. Arnone (2003) suggests various instructional design strategies, such as introducing conceptual conflict and creating an atmosphere for questions, to foster children’s curiosity. Educators also encourage parents to promote children’s curiosity through everyday activities, by supporting them to explore, experiment, discover and find out for themselves (Gaylen, 1998; Green, 2002). Pioneered by Berlyne, whose work laid an important theoretical foundation for the study of curiosity, this concept received academic attention from the 1960s until the mid-1980s. Perhaps due to its ambiguous nature, the interest in understanding curiosity then waned. Lowenstein (1994) describes views of curiosity as polarized between regarding it as a motivational force for scientific discovery and associating it with non-sanctioned behaviors such as drug use. Berlyne’s (1960, 1978) identification of the different forms of curiosity—‘perceptual curiosity’, ‘epistemic curiosity’, ‘specific curiosity’, and ‘diverse curiosity’1—indirectly supports this polarized view. Nonetheless, the potential educational value of curiosity, conceptualized by Berlyne as ‘epistemic curiosity’ or the quest for knowledge, is worth further enquiry. Building on Berlyne’s concept of ‘epistemic curiosity’ to analyze preschool children’s play behavior, Hutt (1970, 1979; Hutt et al., 1989) proposes a taxonomy which divides play into ‘ludic behavior’ and ‘epistemic behavior’. She further elaborates ‘epistemic behavior’ to include the components of problem solving, exploration, and productive activities. Hutt was a pioneer in drawing the attention of early childhood educators to the epistemic nature of play and its implication on the design of the learning environment for preschool children. Numerous studies in the 1970s were devoted to understanding and defining curiosity. Researchers have come to conclude that curiosity is a multi-dimensional concept (Voss & Keller, 1983). Studies have theorized that there are two closely intertwined features of curiosity: motivational force (Berlyne, 1960; Hunt, 1966; Keller, 1987) and behavioral manifestation in the form of exploration (Voss & Keller, 1983). Piaget’s (1936/1952) theoretical contribution to exploration stemmed from his discussion of the need for children to make sense of the world, which is manifested through their innate ‘interest in novelty’. The motivation to explore is embedded in the emergence of more complex cognitive capacities and, for Piaget, this exploration is a cognitive process closely linked to the development of intelligence (Voss & Keller, 1983). Another key theoretical contribution from Berlyne (1960) was the identification of the collative properties of stimuli in arousing curiosity, such as novelty and complexity. This work has stimulated the interest of researchers in investigating the conceptual similarity of curiosity with other qualities
Conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration 143 such as creativity (Voss & Keller, 1983). Hence several dimensions of curiosity—as a motivational force, as expressed through exploratory behavior, the nature of stimuli, and conceptually similar qualities—may serve as a focus for understanding the characteristics of young children’s curiosity. The research findings, although limited, have revealed some interesting patterns in the relationship between parental behavior and children’s curiosity. High parental exploratory behavior was observed to be strongly related to high exploratory behavior in children (Endsley et al., 1979). In a study on the influence of the responsive behavior of adults on curiosity, Henderson and Moore (1980) found that highly curious children ask more questions of ‘responsive’ and ‘demonstrative’ adults than of ‘unresponsive’ adults. These findings indicated that the affect and attitude of adults influence the exploratory behavior of children. Further, as mediators critical to maintaining the intrinsic motivation of children, adults introduce children to new and interesting events, provide them with opportunities to explore, help them to develop a varied repertoire of exploratory behavior and support them by giving them a sense of emotional security when they are anxious or frustrated (Sussman, 1989; Grossmann et al., 1999). Sternberg (1994) claims that mediators, such as teachers and parents, who respond to children’s questions at higher levels by encouraging them to find and explore explanations, instead of rejecting their questions, are better at fostering their intellectual development. In spite of continuous emphasis on the value of childinitiated discovery learning, the learning and teaching process still very much stresses the dissemination of information. It has been observed that between kindergarten and late elementary school, the proportion of curiosity-type questions raised by students drops by half (Lindfors, 1991). Teachers and parents, as people who are significant in organizing the environment for young children, play a crucial role in promoting or hindering their curiosity and exploratory behavior. What guides their choice? A point of entry is to understand the implicit conceptions or beliefs held by people. Heider (1958) argues that, regardless of whether a person’s beliefs and assumptions are valid according to scientific theories, they are valid to the person and thus ‘must be taken into account in explaining certain of his or her expectations and actions’ (p. 5). Sternberg (1985) states that studying the implicit theories of laypeople is useful to knowing what people mean when they employ frequently used terms in everyday discourse, since they make evaluations and judgments based on such conceptions. Most important is how a person’s implicit theories or beliefs are related to his or her actions. Furnham (1988) notes that lay beliefs have behavioral consequences. As an example, he points to the vast body of psychological literature linking the complicated yet subtle relationship between attitude and behavior and cites teachers’ expectations and parental beliefs as illustrations of lay theories of education. What are the potential effects of the implicit theories or beliefs of adults on interactions between adults and children and on the subsequent performance of the children? Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) provocative study on self-fulfilling prophesies in the classroom illustrates the potential effect that the expectations of teachers,
144 A. Chak expressed through their beliefs about the abilities of students, have on the students’ performance. The potential effect is mediated through the interactions between the teacher and the students, manifested via the quality of verbal contacts, and instructional and motivational strategies (Good & Weinstein, 1986; Rosenthal, 2002). The literature on parenting also contains many discussions about how the beliefs of parents permeate their actions, spanning from child-rearing practices to teaching strategies (Goodnow, 1984; Sigel, 1992; Sigel & McGillicuddy-De Lisi, 2002). However, research on finding a direct connection between one’s beliefs and actions has shown mixed results, indicating that the relationship is complex and far from linear. WilcoxHerzog (2002) suggests that both methodological issues and the dynamic influences of various mediating or situational factors may account for this lack of consistency. Nonetheless, the influence of the beliefs of adults on the interaction between the adults and children is evident, and the subsequent effect of the interaction on the child’s development is of prime concern to both theorists and practitioners. Since it is argued that beliefs are derived from cultural and personal experiences (Sigel & McGillicuddy-De Lisi, 2002), a prerequisite to understanding the adult– child interaction is to first comprehend the theories and beliefs implicitly held by adults. The present study has two aims. First, in order to understand what kinds of environment teachers and parents may provide for children to explore in, it is meaningful to first investigate what teachers and parents believe about curiosity and the exploratory behavior of children, and whether they value such characteristic in children. As this study takes place in a Chinese context, where society in general values academic achievement highly and adults usually prefer an adult-directed style toward learning, it is interesting to note possible cultural influences on teachers’ and parents’ views of curiosity and exploration. The second aim of this study is to compare the views of parents and early childhood education practitioners and those of researchers on the characteristics of curiosity, as a means to initiate dialogue between theorists and practitioners and to see whether these views may complement each other in contributing to future conceptual development.
Method Participants This study consisted of two phases, a pilot study and a main study, conducted in Hong Kong, China, involving preschool teachers and parents with a preschool-age child. The pilot study involved 84 participants, of which 64 were preschool teachers enrolled in an in-service training program,2 and 20 were parents, who had been solicited by 20 preschool teachers. The main study involved 321 participants, 195 preschool teachers (237 teachers were initially recruited with a response rate of 82%) and 126 parents (210 parents were initially recruited with a response rate of 60%). Of the 195 preschool teachers, 155 were recruited from 12 preschools and 40 were recruited from an in-service training program. The parents were recruited from 7 of the 12 preschools. The
Conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration 145 preschools consisted of both kindergartens and childcare centers located mainly in middle-class and lower-class neighborhoods. All of the preschool teachers were female with a mean working experience of 8.5 years (SD = 5.6 years). Of the parents, 28% were male and 72% were female. The majority of the parents (72%) had received a secondary school education with 12% having received a primary school education and 16% a tertiary education. Since the parents had been recruited from the preschools, all had at least one child of preschool age. Materials and procedure A questionnaire composed of two parts, a quantitative section and a qualitative section, was designed to explore the conceptions of curiosity and exploratory behavior held by teachers and parents. The quantitative section explored the participants’ conceptions of the characteristics of curiosity and their valuation of the characteristics, specifically whether they felt a characteristic to be worth encouraging in preschool-age children and whether it was important to the learning process of preschool-age children. Beyond learning about how adults conceptualize curiosity, understanding whether they value certain characteristics will provide a crucial connection to seeing whether adults will promote or hinder the expression of curious behavior by children. This section of the questionnaire was modified from Sternberg’s (1985) multi-stage method of studying implicit theories of various concepts. A list of the characteristics of curiosity was constructed. The participants were asked to rate on a 5-point scale whether each characteristic is typical of curiosity in preschool-age children, whether it is worth encouraging and whether it is important to learning. The characteristics would then be factor analyzed. The qualitative section, consisting of two open-ended questions, aimed at understanding how adults utilize the concept of curiosity in context. The questions included eliciting (a) the perceptions of participants on the development of curiosity, specifically to explain whether they think children’s curiosity decreases with age, and (b) the circumstances in which they would or would not encourage exploratory behavior in children. A pilot study was conducted to generate in the quantitative section of the questionnaire the list of the characteristics of curiosity. Since the manifestation of some characteristics of curiosity may change with age (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1986), the list focused specifically on the characteristics of preschool-age children. To generate the initial list from laypeople, the participants were asked to write down as many characteristics of a curious child as they could think of, and 393 responses were generated. The responses were analyzed qualitatively, and then were sorted and integrated with characteristics identified in the literature. A final list of 23 characteristics was compiled. The characteristics were grouped into four categories: those that acted as a motivational force (three items), those that manifested through exploratory behavior (10 items), those that were related to the stimulus (seven items), and those that were related to personal qualities (three items) (see Table 1). There was agreement in both
146 A. Chak the lay expression and in the literature (Berlyne, 1960; Voss & Keller, 1983) that curiosity should be conceptualized as a motivational force. Although researchers commonly acknowledge the motivational dimension of curiosity, it is not well defined. Thus, all of the following three items derived under this category were from the lay expression: adventurous, takes the initiative and has a strong desire to know. Lay expression and the literature both also conceptualized curiosity as manifesting through exploratory behavior. Three sub-categories were further differentiated under exploratory behavior, namely manipulation (two items), perceptual exploration (five items), and epistemic behavior (three items). These sub-categories were based on common features of exploratory behavior identified in research on curiosity in Table 1.
List of characteristics of curiosity
Category 1: Motivation adventurous* takes the initiative* has a strong desire to know* Category 2: Exploratory behavior (a) Manipulation Likes to touch things*+ Manipulates to find out answers*+ (b) Perceptual exploration Observes attentively+ Is visually aware of things around+ Detailed observation*+ Is aware of sound around+ Listens carefully+ (c) Epistemic behavior Asks questions frequently*+ Continuously searches for answers*+ Uses different methods to search for answers*+ Category 3: Nature of and response to stimulus Is interested in novelty*+ Is interested in unknown+ Is interested in complexity+ Is eager to get answers quickly+ Is easily attracted+ Intensity of arousal declines quickly*+ Persistence*+ Category 4: Personal qualities related to curiosity Active* Creative*+ Imaginative*+ * Items identified by laypeople; generated by participants (teachers and parents) in the pilot study. + Items based on the literature.
Conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration 147 children (Kreitler & Kreitler, 1986; Trudewind & Schneider, 1994; Voss & Keller, 1983; Nunnally & Lemond, 1973; Day, 1971). The arousal of curiosity cannot exist without the presence of a stimulus; Berlyne’s (1960) identification of the collative properties or the nature of a stimulus is the most widely adopted one in studies on curiosity. Three properties most frequently studied in relation to children, namely novelty, the unknown, and complexity (Kreitler et al., 1974; Henderson, 1984; Trudewind & Schneider, 1994), were included in the list of characteristics (three items). Of the three properties, laypeople identified only novelty. Four items were generated from various types of responses to a stimulus. Both laypeople and researchers agreed with the impression that a curious person is quickly aroused (Lowenstein, 1994; Trudewind & Schneider, 1994). There was varied opinion among both laypeople and researchers on the duration of the arousal: from fleeting and transient (Lowenstein, 1994) to persistence in exploration (Henderson, 1984; Kreitler & Kreitler, 1986). Researchers were more interested in the latter. Both descriptions were included in the list of characteristics. Finally, three items on personal qualities related to curiosity were included. Both laypeople and researchers (Voss & Keller, 1983; Goerlitz & Wohlwill, 1987) cite the relationship of creativity and imagination to curiosity. A quality often identified by laypeople—being active—was also included. In the main study, the questionnaire was distributed to teachers enrolled in an inservice training program and to teachers in 12 preschools. Seven of these preschools were invited to distribute the questionnaire to parents of the children of one class, which was randomly selected by the preschool’s principal or supervisor. The completion of the questionnaire was voluntary. The principals or supervisors of the preschools helped to collect and return the questionnaires completed by both parents and teachers.
Results and discussion Conceptions of the characteristics of a curious child: comparison between teachers and parents; laypeople and theorists The overall mean ratings of the characteristics were relatively high and fell within a narrow range: the lowest mean rating was 3.16 (intensity of arousal quickly declines) and the highest was 4.37 (is interested in novelty). Teachers gave higher ratings than parents to all characteristics, indicating that they were more likely to consider the list as comprising the characteristics of curiosity. For the combined group of teachers and parents, the items with the highest rating were ‘is interested in novelty’ (M = 4.37, SD = 0.72), ‘has a strong desire to know’ (M = 4.34, SD = 0.75), ‘asks questions frequently’ (M = 4.25, SD = 0.72), and ‘is visually aware of things around’ (M = 4.24, SD = 0.76). For teachers, the highest ratings were ‘has a strong desire to know’ (M = 4.45), ‘is interested in novelty’ (M = 4.42), and ‘continuously searching for answers’ (M = 4.32). Parents rated ‘interest in novelty’ (M = 4.30) and ‘asks questions frequently’ (M = 4.22) the highest. Teachers and parents viewed the above items as characteristics typical of
148 A. Chak curiosity. Both teachers and parents rated the item ‘intensity of arousal quickly declines’ (M = 3.16, SD = 1) the lowest, which may indicate that they were unsure whether it was a characteristic of curiosity. There was a considerable discrepancy between teachers and parents on a number of characteristics. Teachers rated the following characteristics more highly than parents: ‘uses different methods to search for answers’ (t = 4.73, df = 317, p < 0.001), ‘manipulates to find out answers’ (t = 3.92, df = 317, p < 0.001), ‘makes detailed observations’ (t = 2.76, df = 319, p = 0.006), ‘is visually aware of things around’ (t = 3.01, df = 317, p = 0.003), ‘has a strong desire to know’ (t = 3.45, df = 317, p = 0.001), ‘adventurous’ (t = 4.62, df = 319, p < 0.001), and ‘persistence’ (t = 3.39, df = 317, p = 0.001). The parents gave ‘active’ a higher rating (t = 3.51, df = 317, p < 0.001) than the teachers. As these items were mainly about various types of exploratory behavior and the motivational aspect of curiosity, it appeared that teachers have a better understanding than parents of the characteristics of these aspects of curiosity. To understand whether the conceptions of teachers and parents revealed any pattern in the structure of the characteristics of curiosity, the list was subjected to a principal component factor analysis. Considering the possibility of a correlation among the factors, an oblimin rotation with a Kaiser normalization was used. The teacher sample and the parent sample were analyzed separately. For the teacher sample, four factors with an eigenvalue greater than 1.0 were extracted. The factors accounted for 29%, 11%, 8% and 6% of the variance in the data, for a total of 55% of the variance explained. Table 2 lists the factors with item loadings greater than 0.50. The factors that emerged were labeled: interest in knowledge, personal qualities related to curiosity, exploratory behavior, and focused attention. Items that loaded heavily onto Factor 1 (average mean = 4.03) and Factor 3 (average mean = 4.13) had the highest average mean scores, indicating that teachers regarded ‘interest in knowledge’ and ‘exploratory behavior’ as the main characteristics of curiosity. For the parent sample, six factors with eigenvalues greater than 1.0 were extracted. The factors accounted for 30%, 10%, 7%, 6%, 5% and 5% of the variance in the data, for a total of 63% of the variance explained. Table 2 lists the factors with item loadings greater than 0.50. The factors that emerged were labeled: exploratory behavior—perceptual focus, nature of arousal, personal qualities related to curiosity, interest in knowledge, exploratory behavior—mixed mode, and risk taking. Items that loaded heavily onto Factor 3 (average mean = 4.08), Factor 4 (average mean = 3.96), and Factor 5 (average mean = 4.14) had the highest average mean scores, indicating that parents regarded ‘personal qualities related to curiosity’, ‘interest in knowledge’, and ‘exploratory behavior—mixed mode’ as the main characteristics of curiosity. Teachers and parents had some common conceptions of the characteristics of curiosity. Three common dimensions, namely ‘interest in knowledge’, ‘personal qualities’, and ‘exploratory behavior’, were extracted from both the teacher and the parent samples. Teachers and parents conceptualized the dimensions ‘interest in knowledge’ and ‘exploratory behavior’ somewhat differently. On the dimension of ‘interest in knowledge’, on top of the items cited by both teachers and parents, the
0.93 0.90 0.58 0.78 0.70 0.65 0.55 0.54 0.53
Factor 3: exploratory behavior Is aware of sound around Likes to touch things Observes attentively Is interested in novelty Asks questions frequently Is easily attracted
0.60 0.59 0.56
0.79 0.78 0.77 0.73 0.66
4.13 3.93 4.26 4.18 4.42 4.26 3.74
3.78 4.01 3.92 3.40
4.45 3.99 3.79
4.03 3.91 3.69 4.32 3.91 4.19
Factor 4: interest in knowledge Continuously searching for answers Is eager to get answers quickly Manipulates to find out answers Has a strong desire to know
Factor 3: personal qualities related to curiosity Creative Imaginative
0.72 0.69 0.65 0.58
0.67 0.60 0.55
Factor 2: nature of arousal Active Is easily attracted Intensity of arousal declines quickly
3.96 4.10 3.81 3.83 4.16
4.08 3.98 4.17
3.64 3.80 3.95 3.18
3.79 3.59 3.56 3.81 4.19
0.81 0.77 0.54 0.51
Factor 1: exploratory behavior—perceptual focus Uses different methods to search for answers Listens carefully Is aware of sound around Observes attentively
Loading Mean Items
Factor 2: personal qualities related to curiosity Imaginative Creative Active
Has a strong desire to know Takes the initiative Is eager to get answers quickly
Factor 1: interest in knowledge Detailed observations Is interested in complexity Continuously searching for answers Persistence Manipulates to find out answers
Table 2. Factor structure of teachers’ and parents’ conceptions of the characteristics of curiosity
Conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration 149
Factor 4: focused attention Intensity of arousal declines quickly Listens carefully
3.36 3.14 3.57
Factor 6: risk-taking Adventurous Is interested in complexity
Factor 5: exploratory behavior—mixed mode Asks questions frequently Likes to touch things Is visually aware of things around
Table 2. Continued
−0.77 −0.73 −0.53
3.52 3.49 3.54
4.14 4.22 4.11 4.09
150 A. Chak
Conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration 151 teacher sample also included items such as ‘persistence’ and ‘takes the initiative’, which may be interpreted as features of attitude. The teachers’ inclusion of these attitudinal items, illustrating the process of seeking knowledge, portrayed a richer conceptualization of the interest and search for knowledge. On the dimension of ‘exploratory behavior’, one factor was extracted from the teachers’ sample, including items of manipulation, perceptual exploration, and epistemic behavior, whereas two factors were extracted from the parents’ sample, making it difficult to interpret their conception of exploratory behavior. As indicated by the factor ‘nature of arousal’, parents separated out the fleeting characteristic of curiosity. The conceptualizations of teachers and parents in the present study coincided somewhat with those of theorists. Both laypeople and theorists shared a multidimensional conceptualization of curiosity. As indicated in Table 1, the dimensions of ‘exploratory behavior’ (category 2) and ‘personal qualities’ (category 4) were also represented and in line with theoretical conceptions. While theorists clearly identified the motivational component of curiosity, this was not separated out in the lay view. Instead, the dimension of ‘interest in knowledge’ combined two aspects of curiosity: the motivational aspect, represented by the item ‘has a strong desire to know’, and the goal of seeking knowledge, represented by the items ‘continuously searching for answers’, ‘manipulates to find out answers’, and ‘is eager to get answers quickly’. This lay conceptualization shared some similarities with Piaget’s (1936/1952) view that children’s interest in novelty stems from the need to make sense of the world. Influenced by Berlyne’s work, the literature on curiosity focuses much attention on the nature of stimulus (category 3); however, this emphasis could not be observed among lay conceptions. The participants also rated whether each characteristic is worth encouraging and whether it is important to learning. Items that were considered worth encouraging were also perceived as important to learning, which indicated a correspondence in the ratings between encouraging and learning. Teachers rated all items of both aspects higher than parents. The mean rating of the teachers on 50% of the items was 4.3 or above, while the mean rating of the parents on only 25% of the items was 4.3 or above. Both teachers and parents rated the following items the lowest: ‘intensity of arousal declines quickly’ (M = 2.79, SD = 1.09), ‘easily attracted’ (M = 3.46, SD = 0.9), and ‘is eager to get answers quickly’ (M = 3.46, SD = 0.89), indicating that they shared the view that these items represent undesirable characteristics of curiosity. Once the negative aspects of curiosity were separated out, teachers were more positive than parents on the overall characteristics of curiosity and were more willing to encourage them. Conceptions of the development of curiosity Participants were asked whether the curiosity of children decreases with age and to explain their point of view. Of the participants (N = 316), 39% indicated that curiosity would decrease with age, 59% indicated it would not decrease with age, and 2% (all were teachers) indicated both. The Pearson chi-square test indicated that there
152 A. Chak was no significant difference between teachers and parents. Two hundred and eleven participants (62%) explained their viewpoints and a total of 259 reasons were generated, with each participant giving one or two reasons. The explanations were subjected to a content analysis and two main categories were developed. Teachers and parents identified environmental and personal factors as contributing to whether curiosity would decrease with age (see Table 3). These factors corresponded with the age-old nature verses nurture debate. A coding scheme of six sub-categories was further generated from each category, giving a total of 12 sub-categories. Thirty percent of the responses (N = 78) were randomly selected and subjected to an inter-rater reliability assessment by two raters. Cohen’s Kappa was applied to assess inter-rater agreement; the overall mean of agreement was 0.85 and the overall mean of kappa was 0.82.3 Of the participants who indicated that curiosity decreases with age, the overwhelming majority of the explanations given represented a conditional rather than an absolute view of the relationship between age and curiosity. For example, environmental influences rather than biological factors were given as reasons for decline. Since, regardless of whether the participants agreed or disagreed that Table 3.
Major explanations given on whether the curiosity of children does or does not decrease with age Percentage of responses
Explanations External environment Adult’s responses, expectations, influence Education system (e.g. school work) Stimulation from the environment—presence or attraction of a stimulus (e.g. novelty) Influenced by the environment: general, unspecified Prior experience in exploration Person’s characteristics Alternative ways of expressing curiosity/exploratory behavior (e.g. less observable) Attitude toward a stimulusb no longer aroused continues to be aroused Focused/specific interest Personal characteristics aIndicates
21 3 13.5
13.5 1.5 9
19 3 12
36 (67) (33) 15 5
15 (58)c (41) 9 11
less than 1%. response was further divided into two sub-categories. Some participants felt that as knowledge, experience and cognition increased, a person would become less aroused by stimuli. Other participants held the opposite view that the more one knows, the more one wants to know. cThese percentages represent the breakdown of the sub-categories. bThis
Conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration 153 curiosity decreases with age, they shared similar views of the explanations, all of the explanations were combined for analysis. On environmental factors, both teachers and parents stated that the ‘responses, expectations and influence of adults’ are key to promoting or hindering curiosity in children (19% of the total responses). The participants explained that, on the positive side, the encouragement of adults could help to maintain or increase the curiosity of children, while on the negative side, control by adults could suppress it. Teachers were more concerned than parents about the adults’ responses (21% versus 13.5%), and some also pointed out that school pressure, such as too much homework, also has a potentially negative effect on exploration by children. As expected, more teachers than parents were aware of the role of the environment, in terms of the presence and attractiveness of a stimulus, in encouraging curiosity in children. Some teachers also noted the role of prior experience in exploration, and expressed the opinion that if a child’s curiosity is being satisfied, it is likely to be sustained, and vice versa. On personal factors, participants who believed that curiosity does not decrease with age were more likely to reason that a person only changes the form by which he or she expresses curiosity or manifests exploratory behavior. For example, as a child’s cognitive ability improves, his or her exploratory behavior shifts from external manifestations to become more implicit. They also reasoned that interests become more focused and specific, and that at different ages people are interested in different things. More teachers than parents (11% versus 5%) were aware of curiosity as a trait; that is of the fact that some people are more curious than others. Opinion was divided on the relationship between knowledge and curiosity. Some participants considered that curiosity declined with age due to an increase in knowledge, while others were of the opinion that the more one knows, the more one wants to know. These divided views deserve further investigation because although all observed a decline in the external manifestation of exploratory behavior, those who believe in the former view might play a different mediating role in encouraging exploration than those who believe in the latter view. Conceptions of the circumstances in which exploratory behavior in children would (not) be encouraged The participants were asked under what circumstances they would or would not encourage exploratory behavior in children. Two hundred and seventy-five participants (86%) responded to this question and a total of 567 explanations were generated. Teachers gave more explanations than parents, with 74% of the teachers giving two or three explanations and 83% of the parents giving one or two explanations. The explanations were subjected to a content analysis and three main categories were developed: child-focused, adult-focused, and situation-focused (see Table 4). On the whole, the categories that were identified agreed with the main factors described in theories on the interaction between person and context (e.g. Lewin, 1951/1997; Magnusson & Stattin, 1998). The three categories were by no means
154 A. Chak mutually exclusive; they represented different emphases given in the explanations. An explanation with a child-focused consideration implied that the child was the primary actor. The emphasis was primarily on the child’s perspective and on responding to the child’s characteristics and needs at a particular moment. Explanations with an adult-focused consideration implied that the adult was the primary actor, assessing concerns and making judgments on issues such as the child’s ability, the content of exploration, and his or her role. Explanations with a situation-focused consideration included an evaluation by the adult of the situational and environmental factors. A coding scheme of five sub-categories was generated from the category of child-focused considerations, six sub-categories from adult-focused considerations and six sub-categories from situation-focused considerations, for a total of 17 sub-categories. Thirty percent of the responses (N = 170) were randomly selected and subjected to an inter-rater reliability by two raters. Cohen’s kappa was applied to assess inter-rater agreement; the overall mean of agreement was 0.91 and the overall mean of kappa was 0.9. The participants considered child, adult and situational factors in determining whether to encourage a child’s exploratory behavior at a particular moment. Teachers and parents agreed unanimously that the primary consideration is to provide a safe environment for preschoolers to explore (35% of total responses). This was probably because the focus of this study was on preschool-age children. Both groups also considered it important to attend to a child’s interest in furthering his or her exploration (18% of total responses). Some of the participants noted the need to observe the child’s response to a stimulus. The appropriateness of the timing was another consideration Table 4.
Major considerations about the circumstances that will or will not encourage exploratory behavior in children Percentage of responses
Child-focused considerations Child’s interest/observe child’s response to stimulus Child’s physical/cognitive/emotional state Child misbehaves
19 3 1.5
15.5 2 1
18 2.5 1
Adult-focused considerations Whether the stimulus is (in)appropriate For learning and development Whether it interferes with/disturbs/affects other children Whether it requires adult supervision/guidance
10 3.5 5 2
16 6 –a 5
11.5 4 3.5 3
Situation-focused considerations Safety Timing: adequate/appropriate/designated time
less than 1%.
Conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration 155 of both teachers and parents (13% of total responses). Teachers were concerned about the adequacy of time for exploration. The teachers held diverse views on when exploration could take place; some felt that exploration should occur during designated activities, while others believed it could occur anytime and during any activity. On adult-focused considerations, it appeared surprising that more parents than teachers voiced their concerns about the following: the appropriateness of the content of the stimulus being explored, in terms of its value and meaningfulness and whether it is age appropriate (10% versus 16%); on whether the exploration should be related to learning (3.5% versus 6%); and the requirement of adult supervision or guidance (2% versus 5%). This may be explained by the difference in the context in which teachers and parents interact with children. The factors that parents were concerned about would already have been taken into account by teachers in designing and implementing the learning activities. Adult supervision is not an issue in school settings. However, outside of the school setting, parents need to be vigilant about the variety of stimuli to which young children are exposed in this information age, and they need to play an active role in screening and selecting the sources of stimulation appropriate for preschoolers. Concluding remarks I have argued that in order to understand whether adults encourage children to be curious and to explore, it is essential to first comprehend their implicit conceptions of curiosity. Furthermore, as mediators of the environment of children, it is important to take into consideration the views of teachers and parents. As representations of lay expressions, they are an important complement to theoretical conceptualizations. Overall, the participants in this study held positive views about curiosity and exploration, with teachers even more positive than parents in their willingness to encourage curiosity in children. Such a positive view, especially on the part of the teachers, may be related to the participants’ primary involvement with children of preschool age. In general, the professional training of preschool teachers emphasizes a constructivist view of learning and advocates discovery learning and exploration. The greater awareness of teachers compared with parents of environmental influences on the exploration of children may also be due to the internalization of beliefs adopted from their professional training. Such a professional orientation would likely have an impact on the positive view that teachers hold of curiosity and exploration. Although the preschool teachers in this study were generally willing to encourage children’s curiosity and valued its importance to learning, some of them already noted their concern about the effect of academic pressure on curiosity. This may imply teachers’ concern about whether they are able to put their beliefs into practice. Compared with the primary school curriculum, the less structured preschool curriculum may pose less of a dilemma for teachers to exercise their professional beliefs in allowing children more time to explore. With the current emphasis of
156 A. Chak ‘child-centeredness’ as the core value of Hong Kong’s pre-primary education (Education Department and Social Welfare Department, 2001; Curriculum Development Council, 2006), it is timely to promote discussions on the value of nurturing young children’s curiosity and exploration in early childhood settings. However, as academic pressure is already significant in primary school and with the mounting tension of the downward extension of the primary curriculum to the early years, such discussion needs to be extended to involve the whole education sector. It would also be worthwhile to determine whether primary school and secondary school teachers share the positive view of preschool teachers on curiosity and exploration, and on possible relationship between academic pressure and teachers’ encouragement of exploration. From the participants’ expression of their views on the development of curiosity and on when to encourage children to explore, there was some indication that their considerations were multi-faceted, including both personal and environmental considerations, and that they held a relational view on the expression of their beliefs in action. For example, some parents considered that given that the setting is safe, a child could explore whatever he or she was interested in. Such a dynamic relationship supports Furnham’s (1988) contention that beliefs are expressed differently in different situations and that the relationship between belief and behavior is nonlinear. Schneider and Unzner’s (1994) research also illustrates the influence of the social context and of situational goals of parents on parental behavior and a child’s exploration. Beyond the possible interaction between beliefs and situational factors, Furnham (1988) also notes the influence of culture on a person’s beliefs and practices. Such influence, reflected in the degree of control exercised over a child’s exploration, may be manifested at various levels. At the macro level, some teachers were concerned that pressure from school would lead to a decline in curiosity in children. At the micro level, some parents who believed that there was a need to decide which stimuli were worthwhile for children to explore might be influenced by the Chinese tradition of adult-directed behavior. These findings shed some light on the relationship between the beliefs of adults and contextual factors, including the immediate context and the cultural context, which appears to support taking a person-context theoretical view to understand the connection between beliefs and behavior. The findings from this study revealed considerable similarities between lay and theoretical conceptions of the characteristics of curiosity. Comparable to the conceptualization of theorists, the lay conception of curiosity was multi-dimensional. Theorists have identified two key features of curiosity: that it is a motivational force and a behavioral manifestation. After separating out exploratory behavior, the lay conception further reflected that behavioral manifestation was intertwined with the motivational aspect of curiosity and with the goal of seeking knowledge. However, researchers have focused primarily on understanding and differentiating between various types of exploratory behavior and have paid less attention to the motivational aspect of curiosity. This apparent skewed attention may lead to an imbalance in the
Conceptions of children’s curiosity and exploration 157 theoretical development of this concept. The lay view of incorporating both motivational and behavioral components in its conception may enhance theorists’ attention to possible relations between them. Researchers on curiosity have been greatly influenced by the collative properties identified by Berlyne (1960); however, apart from ‘novelty’, the lay conception appears not to be very discerning about the properties of curiosity. Further, in line with the conceptualization of theorists (Voss & Keller, 1983; Goerlitz & Wohlwill, 1987), teachers and parents perceived personal qualities such as creativity and imagination as related to, but clearly differentiated from, curiosity. In recent decades, although few researchers have shown much interest in curiosity as a concept for investigation, early childhood educators have continued to promote its educational value. Dialogue among laypeople and theorists not only can enhance the theory and practice link, but is also mutually enriching and may push forth theoretical conceptualizations. For example, Berlyne’s analysis of the collative properties of curiosity can inform practice by extending early childhood educators’ view on the variety of stimuli that can arouse children’s curiosity. Furthermore, with current educational emphasis on developing children’s creativity and imagination, researchers and practitioners can jointly investigate possible linkages of these concepts with curiosity, in particular as a motivational force and as expressed in exploratory behavior. The present study has illustrated that it is meaningful to consider lay conceptions of curiosity to complement scientific research. This approach is especially relevant in exploring the potential application of the epistemic nature of this concept in educational settings. This study is exploratory in nature and the scope of investigation is limited. It cannot present a comprehensive understanding of the implicit theories held by adults on this concept. Some speculations have been made in linking various views together; however, a deeper and more comprehensive investigation would better reveal the dynamics among systems of belief embedded in and related to the conception and expression of curiosity. For example, teachers may be faced with conflicting beliefs between allowing children’s freedom to explore and the expectation to fulfill certain required educational curricula or goals. In facilitating children’s exploration, teachers and parents may be juggling between the role of adults in providing guidance and direction, and child-centered values. Further, the list of the characteristics of curiosity identified in this study needs to be extended and modified beyond young children to other age groups. Finally, the views of teachers and parents of children of different age groups and cultural and demographic backgrounds would also be meaningful themes for further investigation. Notes 1.
Perceptual curiosity is aroused by novel stimuli and subsequently reduced by continuous exposure to such stimuli. Epistemic curiosity is motivated by the quest for knowledge or information. Specific curiosity is aroused when a person desires a particular piece of information, and diverse curiosity is related to a person’s search for stimuli for entertainment or for relief from boredom (Berlyne, 1960, 1978).
158 A. Chak 2.
The in-service training program was a three-year part-time associate degree program offered by a local university. Student teachers enrolled in this program were qualified early childhood education teachers with at least two years’ working experience. The overall mean of agreement is the proportion of agreement between raters. The overall mean of kappa is the proportion of agreement corrected for chance.
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