Curiosity is the key to student success now and in the future. Here's how to nurture it from the beginning.

Kids are naturally curious. Set them loose in a room full of craft supplies or a muddy sandbox, and you'll see their imaginations come to life. But all too often that spark fizzles when kids sit down in the classroom, and it's up to teachers to reignite it. We talked to Todd Kashdan, author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University, about the importance of following students' interests, exploring different perspectives, and fostering curiosity in the classroom.

What do you mean by curiosity?
It's the pursuit and recognition of new information and experiences. Most people think about curiosity when something interesting, bizarre, or challenging pops into their field of vision ­- then they'll be intrigued. What we've learned is that you can purposely seek what's unique for each student in the classroom. As opposed to top-down curiosity, it's really about bottom-up curiosity. It's saying, I'm actually going to search for data in my environment or things inside myself that make me recognize this eccentric world and embrace the butterflies and opportunities that come with that.

Why should educators nurture curiosity?
Curious kids keep you on your toes: I have a lesson plan, but you're going to help me deviate from it and I have no idea where we are going. That's the joy of teaching. We get to play, banter, and debate things. Teachers are looking for this, but they have this conflict: The administration is asking them to focus so intensely on standardized tests that a lot of teachers say, I don't have the opportunity to be the playful, exploratory person that made me go into this profession in the first place.

How is passion related to curiosity?
When we focus on being prevention oriented and trying not to have errors in the classroom, it gets in the way of kids developing a sense of mastery and passion about the material. When we focus on accomplishment, values, passions, and interests, this is when after the class is over they are going to remember it. As teachers, we don't just want people to do well when they are in our class; we want to be an influential part of their lives and have some sustainability in what we are teaching them. If we want to do that, we can't avoid this idea of focusing on curiosity and passions.

What do you mean by being "mindful" in the classroom?
Often, as teachers, we have our templates of how we want the class to be. We have an idea we want to get through. We are living in the past as opposed to being right there in the present. There is something to be said about being mindful, open, and curious about what's happening right now in the classroom. If everyone is excited about working on a particular topic in more depth, it's going to have more value than covering the litany of material you have to get through. Purposely leave breathing room, with five to ten minutes at the end of a lesson. If you do things right, there should be discussion, debate, and inquiry taking place. When you are not talking, kids are learning the most.

What are some strategies that teachers can use to foster curiosity in the classroom?
One strategy is to have group work. For example, if you are studying the Civil War, have small groups where students take on different perspectives of a question.... What if it was a landowner in the North? Or an 18-year-old without free will forced into the military? Was it a good thing or a bad thing? It's not a clear answer once you start recognizing the perspectives. You are bringing emotions, morality, flexible thinking, and psychology into history. When we ignore complexity, students can't recognize they could be the next Martin Luther King Jr. or Thomas Jefferson because we put these figures on a pedestal. But when you look at their warts and mistakes, then students start to recognize, I could be the next person who makes a real powerful impact on the world.

What about linking to real-world examples?
I strongly encourage teachers to think about their interests and use those as links to what's happening in the classroom. They will have a level of enthusiasm and inflection and animation that will be different from anything else they are teaching. Students get to learn that their teacher has all this information and knowledge and still plays the piano, plays rugby on the weekend, happens to be interested in cooking, and watches Top Chef. To bring those analogies in, it adds value and intrigue.

What about school makes it a challenge to foster curiosity in the classroom?
When it's designed where there is one perspective or one answer, students have no autonomy. There is one thing we know, whether you are a parent or teacher: Kids are looking for little moments of freedom that they can grab, and if you try to take their freedom away, they are going to fight back. It's so important to feel as if they are the author of their own life. If you take away that autonomy and that choice, you are going to get the disobedience and the obstructionist children.

How can teachers make time for curiosity?
When we wield curiosity like a laser from the teachers' perspective, from the students' perspective, from presenting material in unique ways, we actually might save time because kids are more energized, so they learn things more quickly. We don't have to go over material three or four times. We only have to go over it once and it's more sticky.

Teachers tell me obedience takes a good portion of time in the classroom. This is a back-door way of getting around focusing on carrots and sticks to handle the classroom. If you can focus on interests and intrinsic motivation about what's happening in the class, you have kids who are less likely to be disobedient.

Why is this approach important for preparing kids for the jobs of the 21st century?
They are going to enter a world where we don't know the problems, so there absolutely is not any single answer. We need people to be able to think more flexibly. These are not the skills that are being targeted in education. We are still focused on history, mathematics, social studies-this content, as opposed to what are the skills and strengths that we want to develop across content. Culture is evolving at a ridiculously rapid rate, and it's odd that our education system has not evolved in a similar way.