Engaging Curiosity

When were you last curious about something? As a PhD student, brimming over with curiosity and with a burning question to answer, one of the first things you get told is that there are no answers, only more questions!



According to the author, Ian Leslie, the right sort of curiosity nourishes us [1]. Diversive curiosity is found in babies as young as two months who are fascinated by new patterns and shapes. This interest is also found in animals and of course, just consider Facebook and how easily we are distracted by it!

Epistemic curiosity, however, is uniquely human requiring discipline, effort and hard work. It occurs when diversive curiosity deepens from a distraction expanding towards an understanding. Leslie argues that it is critical for development and learning.


Although some researchers argue that curiosity is still poorly understood it is widely agreed that it is essential for learning [2]. Kidd and Hayden [2] say that:

‘It is a motivator for learning, influential in decision-making, and crucial for healthy development.’


Curiosity only happens when little is already known about a subject. It is impossible to be curious about something that is unknown to you! Leslie calls this gap the Curiosity Zone [1]. Leading research into learning calls it the zone of proximal development.

The Curiosity Zone is where the learning happens and where our students need to be for most of their piano lessons.

Here are three simple ways of engaging their curiosity:


The wonder question is such a powerful tool for teachers to have at their fingertips.

Here are some examples:

  • I wonder if you can play the first phrase from memory?
  • I wonder what would happen if you wrote in the fingering for those notes?
  • I wonder if you can tap and count the rhythm of that passage?


Doing things in novel and unexpected ways engages the students’ sense of curiosity. For example, you can instantly change the dynamic of a session by playing a game at the start of a lesson linked to current learning instead of sitting down and warming up with scales.
Once, I devised a simple rhythm pattern game for students. A series of rhythm flashcards were placed on floor spots between the door and the piano. A choice of percussion instruments was provided and to enter the piano studio the student had to walk and tap the rhythms to get to the piano. By the time they reached the piano students were highly engaged and eager to learn.


Part of our job as teachers is to help students develop a problem-solving approach. This includes giving them enough confidence to feel comfortable about making mistakes. We can encourage them, through curiosity, to embrace the uncertainty and uncomfortableness of having more than one possible solution to problems. Questions can be used to good effect here: how many different ways can you think of playing that phrase? Three, five or more?

Finally, some wise words from Walt Whitman to take into our teaching this week:

‘be curious, not judgmental’.

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, co-Director and Founder of The Curious Piano Teachers

p.s. if you are curious about my choice of photo – Living as I now do, surrounded by sheep I am discovering they are very curious animals, easily distracted from eating grass when I walk past.

[1] Curious, the desire to know and why your future depends on it. Leslie, I. 2014. Quercus Editions Ltd.

[2] The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity. Kidd, C. & Hayden, B. Y., 2015 NCBI 

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