Why it’s Important to be Curious About the Past

Mr James Whitehead, Head of History

Curiosity Killed the Cat was a 1980s funk band whose lead singer wore a rather silly hat to hide his bald patch. As I sit here writing this blog, you might ask why this springs to mind, rather than a meaningful quote from a historian? The clue is in the name: curiosity.

Curiosity can take many forms; the joy and importance of history is that it so often provides a spark to feed a student’s intrigue – a key to learning. But if you want a more tangible reason ask the CEO of Dell, Michael Dell, who when asked which trait would most help CEOs succeed, responded, “I would place my bet on curiosity.”

As the world increasingly appears more and more complex, curiosity will play an invaluable role in making sense of a senseless world. The Harvard Business Review claimed that curiosity is even as important as intelligence.

History is ever-evolving and in recent years there has been a growing trend amongst historians to take personal diaries and individual accounts to feed the historical narrative. Two wonderful proponents of this are Richard E Evens, writing about Nazi Germany, and Simon Sebag Montefiore, writing about Revolutionary Russia. They take the smallest account in a diary and allow themselves to be led down a path of enquiry to reveal information about the past previously overlooked.

So why is it important to be curious about the past and how does this translate to learning? Research conducted by the University of California provides some insight into what happens in the brain when our curiosity is piqued. Two of the most significant findings are particularly relevant for educators and parents:

Curiosity prepares the brain for learning: It makes sense that we’re more likely to remember something when the subject matter interests us, but curiosity can also help us learn about things we don’t think are important. Researchers discovered that by hitting on the right questions, the study subjects were better at learning and retaining unrelated information. One of the study’s co-authors, Dr Matthias Gruber, explains this is because ‘curiosity puts the brain in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information, like a vortex that sucks in what you are motivated to learn, and also everything around it’. For educators and parents, if we can spark curiosity in young people in things they are naturally interested in, they will be better prepared for learning things they might consider more difficult.

Curiosity leads to feel-good learning: The researchers discovered that when participants’ curiosity had been aroused, not only was there increased activity in the hippocampus – the region of the brain involved in memory creation – but also in the brain circuit related to reward and pleasure. This is the same part of the brain that responds when we get something that makes us happy, due to its reliance on dopamine, the chemical that gives us the feel good feeling.

Our collective knowledge grows from the smallest spark of curiosity. So what should we be encouraging our children to do? Well maybe it’s what they shouldn’t do; don’t get bogged down in a millennium of dates and the litany of names of key historical figures – search for that curiosity in past events, from the smallest to largest. I never knew the name of the singer from the band but I can still spot that hat from 100 metres.

Curiosity is a one of Kambala’s core values and every year, Kambala celebrates curious minds as part of History Week – a celebration of our shared and individual history. This year our theme is ‘Digging Up the Past’ and focuses on the topic Archaeology.

Kambala is an exceptional and dynamic place of learning where girls are intellectually curious. To learn more about learning at Kambala, download our Prospectus.

About James Whitehead
James Whitehead is Head of History at Kambala, he leads a team of great Historians, including Leigh Barlow, Kuba Cieslak, Timothy Hay, Samantha Nahum, Kate Pardey, Dan Prior and Paige Zavaglia.