Neurocuriosity Workshop 2016: Reflections of a Science Educator

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey

Setting the context
It was a beautiful sunny morning on 6 October 2016, London. A buzz of excitement was in the air as twenty-four eminent speakers from ten different countries and approximately ninety delegates descended on the British Medical House at Tavistock Square for the Second Neurocuriosity Workshop. Apart from one education expert, all the speakers had expertise in either psychology or neuroscience.


Figure 1: A candid shot of some of the speakers, discussants and participants at BMA Courtyard, Tavistock Square, London,

Purpose of workshop
This interesting workshop from 6 to 8 October 2016 was hosted by the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (Birkbeck). It seeks to foster an interactive and dialogic discourse in the latest research findings on information seeking, curiosity and attention from the perspectives of neuroscience and cognitive psychology so as to inform educational practices for effective teaching and meaningful learning.

Some personal takeaways
Other than the presentation by the education expert which I can identify with comfortably, the presentations of the hypotheses, research design and empirical findings in the neuroscience and cognitive psychology experiments have been an amygdala-friendly dopamine releasing albeit challenging learning experience. Below is a summary of the personal takeaways that I find relevant and useful to my work as a science educator.

Dr. Jonathan Nelson, Center for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition, Max Planck Institute for Human Development
Title: “The Mathematics, Psychology, and Neuroscience of information”
Personal takeaway(s):
1. A good experiment is one that discriminates or falsifies the various hypotheses.
2. The need to gather information is to reduce uncertainty.

Dr. Romain Ligneul, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Netherlands
Title: “The neural valuation of knowledge: from curiosity relief to epistemic surprise”
Personal takeaway(s):
1. A minimal typology of curiosity includes the drive for information seeking and the drive for problem seeking.
2. Information seeking behaviours (first order curiosity) are elicited when the cognitive system is confronted with uncertainty. They are related to specific/deprivation curiosity and therefore tend to reduce uncertainty.
3. Problem seeking behaviours (second order curiosity) are elicited when the cognitive system is idle or bored. They are related to diverse/interest curiosity and therefore tend to increase uncertainty.
4. Paradigms in curiosity research involve
(a) Attention: Eye-tracking (pupil, fixation time) and reaction times during a wide variety of tasks.
(b) Decision-making: Amount and structure of exploration during reinforcement-learning task.
(c) Subjective ratings: Results from introspection during trivia quizzes involving questions and answers.
(d) Personality assessment: Self-reported behaviours related to curiosity.
5. Epistemic surprise is derived from the comparison of prior knowledge and new information and mediated the beneficial effects of both prior knowledge and curiosity for memory encoding in the ventral striatum.

Dr Matthias Gruber, Cardiff University, UK
Title: “The neurocognitive mechanisms of curiosity states on learning”
Personal takeaway(s):
1.Curiosity states enhance the drive to seek high value information.
2.It facilitates the hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit.

Dr. Kou Murayama, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Reading
Title: “Curiosity as a complementary reward for extrinsic incentives”
Personal takeaway(s):
1. Curiosity or interest involves reward processes that are internally generated when extrinsic incentives are not available.
2. Extrinsic incentives play an important role in shaping our behaviour, but extrinsic incentives are not always available, especially in higher order activities (e.g. reasoning, creativity).
3. Curiosity is essentially an internal reward process produced by intangible inputs (e.g. knowledge). This reward process can form a positive feedback loop, which boost curiosity over time. This reward process is elicited especially when extrinsic incentives are not explicitly available.
4. Two implications are curiosity biases (guides) decision making & consolidates learning.

Professor Derek Bell, Director of Learnus
Title: “So what do I do in my lessons next week?”
Personal takeaway(s):
1. The gap between education and neuroscience requires bridging in terms of aims/priorities, knowledge base, quality of evidence, language and cultural context.
2. Bridging this gap: complex, breadth and depth, not without risk, need to start somewhere.
3. Concept map showing the relationships between the four components of educational psychology, cognitive neuroscience, pedagogic intervention and behavioural data.
4. The evidence thus far indicates more subtle adjustments in teachers’ practice rather than major changes.
5. Some subtle adjustments include:
(a) the influence of existing knowledge
(b) the need for time to think and reflect
(c) guidance in transfer of reasoning processes
(d) use of strategies to encourage thinking such as wait time/think time for questions, pair-share activities, stop-think, explicitly relate to existing ideas, consider alternative ideas/explanations
(e) use of the following strategies to avoid overloading the working memory (WM) as students find it difficult to hold a series of instructions in their heads and learning is less productive: provide fewer instructions, work in groups, develop WM over time and use of complementary ‘input’ sources
6. To take advantage of improvements in our understanding of learning, schools need to: focus on learning (not simply recall of information to pass tests), identify examples of effective practice and examine why they work, not throw the baby out with the bath water
7. Teacher education (pre-service and continuing professional development) as channels to introduce changes in classroom practice.
8. The need for teachers to work more effectively with researchers in the cognitive sciences to address various issues by means of dialogue, involvement in research projects, raise issues for research: be explicit and specific about what you want to know.
9. In view of the research findings that curiosity consolidates learning and, may act as a positive feedback mechanism as well as curiosity, surprise, rewards and memory not being independent, some strategies to stimulate curiosity and generate interest include the use of surprise items and events, rewards, questions and encouraging exploration of phenomena and ideas.

Concluding thoughts
The insightful presentation by the education expert, Professor Derek Bell on “So what do I do in my lessons next week?” has demonstrated that neuroscience can make real contributions to education. In particular, the neural mechanism that underpins curiosity has illuminated why curiosity lies at the heart of science inquiry. Besides the benefit of strengthening the theory-practice nexus, this research on the neurocognitive mechanisms of curiosity states on learning will increase educators’ confidence on the use of the inquiry-based approach for science education. The use of inquiry-based approach in the professional development of science teachers and inquiry-based strategies (e.g. Predict-Observe-Explain) by teachers in their classroom practice is a well-established best practice in many countries.

With the increasing development in neuroimaging methods and collaboration with cognitive psychologists and educators, neuroscientists can make an important contribution to understanding how different people learn, which is key to quality teaching for quality learning. The starting point of quality teaching for quality learning is to always know the “SPIN” of your learners – S for Strengths, P for Prior knowledge, I for Interests, and N for Needs. A good teacher is one who does not teach the subject but teaches students the subject. 

Written by Dr Charles Chew (Principal Master Teacher (Physics)
Academy of Singapore Teachers
Ministry of Education, Singapore