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What If You’ve Got the Future of Education Inside of You?

Where can your curiosity take you?

Matthew Murrie | @MattMurrie
April 1,  2020

Wonder. Discover. Create. Repeat. Now, do it again!

What if this was the perpetual energy machine powering our learning? What would you fuel with it? Where would you find the resources required to run it?

What if I told you this perpetual energy machine to power our learning is possible? What if the resources necessary to start it up and maintain it are also freely available and abundant in every classroom in the world? What if this machine and resources are also readily accessible to everyone in the world to power their learning because the resource that powers this machine is a naturally occurring, abundant resource that doesn’t plug in or require a login to access?

What if curiosity leads to empathy?
What if curiosity leads to empathy?

Just as incredible, the resource powering this perpetual energy machine for learning comes attached with its own technology–and get a load of the specs on this technology: it has the ability to build, learn, problem solve, adapt continuously, collaborate, repair itself, auto-replicate, and store and process huge amounts of data. Plus, this technology is fully biodegradable and over 7 billion of them already exist.

What if you and your students are the technology? And what if you’re powered by your curiosity?

Using Curiosity Based Learning converts naturally occuring curiosity into educational experiences that make learning relevant in the moment, perpetual in the future, and with a bias toward action. The core tenant of Curiosity Based Learning is that curiosity is a natural resource. From there, we can convert it into an energy for learning and doing by focusing it through specific processes designed to connect personal interests to deeper learning. In doing so, learning experiences become more efficient, effective, empathetic, and collaborative.

This is done by flipping the starting point of learning from that of a transaction from the teacher to student, e.g. “today we are going to learn about…” to an invitation to discover, e.g. “what are you most curious about when it comes to…?”. This spark of wonder is quickly captured and directed toward pathways of discovery. These experiences are converted into opportunities of creation in which learners can both reflect on what they learned as well as project toward future actions stemming from that learning. The power of this process forces learners to press the repeat button as quickly as possible because it provides them with complete ownership of their learning. This sense of ownership translates into an understanding of value in the acquisition and pursuit of knowledge.

When was the last time you tried flipping the way you did something?
When was the last time you tried flipping the way you did something?

This happens at every age and every subject. Curiosity Based Learning processes are designed to be flexible and adaptable to every user. They are non-competitive with other learning processes and methodologies and can be treated as “plug-and-play” with themselves and others.

Fortunately, all of these claims about curiosity are not hypothetical. I’ve experienced their results first hand and have trained others to have similar experiences for the past two decades, plus.

The genesis for Curiosity Based Learning’s direct application into classrooms for student learning date back to my years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kratovo, Macedonia, circa 1999 – 2001. As a high school English teacher, I knew little about teaching and my town and my school had even less in terms of resources. Yet, whether my students had books, breakfast, or heat that day, we all had the same objectives to reach. It would be easy to characterize the experience as us “struggling together” to achieve a common goal; but the reality was more of us “discovering together” to uncover the wonders of what we were studying, each other, and maybe learning a little English grammar along the way.

Under these conditions, many of the Curiosity Based Learning processes I now share with educators, entrepreneurs, and executives around the world were born.

After that Peace Corps experience, I continued using Curiosity Based Learning to teach kids from kindergarten to university from Seoul, South Korea to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The only constant beyond the curiosity was the diversity of my students. At Westminster College, I used Curiosity Based Learning to teach Academic Writing and Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship to international students and continue providing Curiosity Based Learning workshops and training for entrepreneurs in Bucaramanga, Colombia to educators in Tucuman, Argentina. The people and places change, but the curiosity and outcomes remain pretty consistently amazing.

What if anticipating the future can be good for you?
What if anticipating the future can be good for you?

One such example I love using to introduce and push what students can do with Curiosity Based Learning can easily be seen in the “what if” question a group of students in Colombia I got curious with to explore actions they could design to deny violence and encourage peace throughout their country collaborated on to come up with and then explore. Their “what if” question became, “What If Education Is a Weapon?”

From that question, students were able to uncover both a deeper understanding of the importance education played in their lives and the power they could potentially wield as they took control and ownership of their education going forward.

Another evergreen “what if” question generated by a group of educators and students collaborating together in a Curiosity Based Learning experience I use frequently to design actions on improving the process of learning is: “What if we designed schools like Disney designs parks?”

What if, with group-generated questions like these “learning” becomes second nature and taking actions becomes reflexive–and reflective?

Curiosity Based Learning is not, however, relegated to only broad outcomes or insights. It can be used to drill down deep into a specific subject or task. For example, a favorite use of Curiosity Based Learning is for entire classes of students to collaborate on self-designing their own homework. But this isn’t your standard, garden-variety homework: it’s homework that meets any specific learning objectives or standards for which an educator is responsible and homework the students are 100% stoked to do–because they created it!

The possibilities of Curiosity Based Learning in the classroom are as limitless as the curiosities within it.

Fortunately, it’s not all anecdotes and rainbows in regards to the effectiveness of Curiosity Based Learning. In addition to the feedback and outcomes I have seen from over two decades of using Curiosity Based Learning, there is a growing amount of research calling for and supporting the implementation of more, active, curiosity-driven approaches to learning.

What if there were no trees?
What if there were no trees?

For the skeptics or educators working on something super specific they are convinced could never be compatible with curiosity or Curiosity Based Learning, consider that in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences active learning approaches like Curiosity Based Learning “… leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55% over the rates observed under active learning” (Freeman, 2014).

What if we forget about learning for a second? What if Curiosity Based Learning also has the ability to make learning more fun? Considering how asking “what if…?” and other curiosity-driven wonders are really processes of active prediction and anticipation, recent studies published in Frontiers in Psychology “… suggest a neural mechanism by which the anticipation process to future desired events correlates to human well-being” (Luo, Yangmei, et al., 2018)

Therefore, there is indication using Curiosity Based Learning does not only improve how students learn specific objectives, it can also help train them to have an approach to life and learning that increases their overall well-being.

Fortunately, bringing curiosity into learning experiences is neither expensive, nor time consuming. It all starts with a simple shift in thinking when it comes to how you approach your classes. This shift is perfectly captured in the image from Bussakorn Binson’s Journal Article, “Curiosity Based Learning (CBL) Program” (Binson, 2009).  Once you make the shift from a teacher/dictator model to that of a teacher/facilitator you are already on your way to a more curious classroom. All of the Curiosity Based Learning processes and activities designed by What If Curiosity have this image of a teacher/facilitator in mind.

Image Credit: Binson, Bussakorn
Image Credit: Binson, Bussakorn

Lastly, to share an example of what Curiosity Based Learning looks like, particularly how it can bridge not only the achievement gap, but all of the other “gaps” stalling education such as technology, access, and training, below is an example of two Curiosity Based Learning processes (What? to Wow! and Curiosity Q&A) playing with each other to create curiosity-driven approaches to  “traditional” content (i.e. a physical “textbook”), in this case, The Book of What If…?. The results are eight questions and eight activities that could all be done in a single class, broken up into classes of their own, or serve as the foundation for an entire unit of discovery, creation, and learning.

What if there were no trees?


Question: What would the world look like without any trees?

Action: Imagine you’re looking at a photograph of a tree-less Earth; describe it in a paragraph.


Question: Who wrote the famous, 12 line poem called “Trees“?

Action: Write your own 12 line poem about trees.


Question: How did the poem, “Trees” inspire actual action taken to save trees?

Action: Make a collection of other written words that have inspired people or governments to take meaningful actions.


Question: When did Kilmer write “Trees”?

Action: Imagine an earth 100 years from now; draw or describe your neighborhood, detailing where trees are or aren’t.


Question: The poet who wrote “Trees” has a forest named after him; where is it?

Action: If you could name a forest after someone, who would you name it after, where and what kind of forest would it be, and why?


Question: Why do you think trees are important? Why do you think poems are important?

Action: Write a letter to all the dogs of the world explaining why they are no longer “man’s best friend”; trees now have that title.


Question: Where would birds sing and kids climb if there were no trees?

Action: Make a list of three ways you and trees are connected on a daily basis.


Question: What is one way both trees and poems are awesome?

Action: What if trees and poems have a lot in common? Trees and poems have defined structures to hold them together and function: trees have roots, branches, and leaves, whereas poems have words, lines, and stanzas. How would you describe a tree as a poem and a poem as a tree?

Binson, Bussakorn. (2009). “Curiosity-Based Learning (CBL) Program.”

Freeman, Scott et al. “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 111,23 (2014): 8410-5. doi:10.1073/pnas.1319030111

Luo, Yangmei, et al. “Well-Being and Anticipation for Future Positive Events: Evidences from an FMRI Study.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8, 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02199.

Matt Murrie is the author of The Book of What If...?, founder of What If...? Curiosity, and creator of What If Curiosity's Curiosity Based Learning process. Matt uses curiosity to help educators, entrepreneurs, executives, and empathetic leaders convert their curiosity into a tool to power their learning, innovation, and collaboration for a better world.


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