Curiosity killed by class?


When you become a father you get used to being asked endless questions about the intricacies of our complex world. The road is paved with unending questions. Why does this…? How does that…? Questions become connections. Connections flower into understanding and grow into knowledge. Without being trite, such curiosity is a wonderful thing. Curiosity is a well spring for teachers. We need to nurture and help it thrive in our students. We need to help students to ask great questions – as such questions are the signposts of a curious mind.

I have been recently reading an excellent book, ‘Trusting What You’re Told: How a Children Learn from Others‘, by Paul Harris of Harvard University. The book is full of interesting insights and research on child language development and how children develop: linguistically, biologically and culturally. The most striking, and disturbing, aspect of the book was his observations on, and links to, research on language development, asking questions and its relatedness to social class.

The research Paul Harris links to shows that children from working class families don’t ask nearly as many questions as children from middle class families. This shouldn’t be a surprise really. Wise people like Geoff Barton have been popularising the concept of the ‘Matthew Effect‘ for some time now – whereat the ‘word poor become poorer, whereas the word rich become richer‘. The problem is complex and challenging.

Paul Harris initially links to a study undertaken by Dorothea McCarthy, in Minneapolis in 1930:

“Dorothea McCarthy observed 140 children in Minneapolis ranging in age from 18 to 54 months. She recorded the first 50 utterances of each child as the child talked to the same unfamiliar adult. Among upper-class as compared to lower class children, a greater proportion of those 50 utterances were questions… For example, among upper-class children with a mental age of 48 to 54 months, almost 20 percent of those utterances were in the form of a question. By contrast, among lower-class children with a similar mental age, fewer than 10 percent were in the form of a question.” (P32, ‘Trusting What You’re Told’, Paul L. Harris)

Harris accounts for the crucial variable of confidence in this study, but he then links to the more modern research of Tizard and Hughes, whose British research in 1984 produced much more nuanced results. These researchers help quash the simplistic notion of a blanket ‘language deficit‘ in all working class homes. There were, however, some significant differences. Middle class children were again more likely to engage in persistent questioning called “passages of intellectual search”. In the foreword to their book, entitled ‘Young Children Learning‘, Tizard and Hughes identify some key differences that limit working class children in comparison to their middle class peers, such as:

“…the frequency of adults’ complex use of language and adequacy of answers to why questions, in the frequency of children’s ‘why’ questions and passages of persistent questioning, and in children’s complex use of language. These may well have contributed to the striking differences evident when the children went to school.” (Page 13, ‘Young Children Learning’ by Tizard and Hughes)

In a really interesting study into child language development in Avon, commissioned by the Department for Education (see the study here), the research on thousands of children and parents noted that the issue was not solely the broad variable of socio-economic background, and more the specifics of the “early communication environment“, which was essential in a healthy language development that fosters curiosity and good language development:

“Influential factors in the child’s communication environment included the early ownership of books, trips to the library, attendance at pre-school, parents teaching a range of activities and the number of toys and books available. So, for example, those children who owned more books and were taken to the library more frequently at age 2 achieved higher scores on the school assessment when entering primary school. The amount of television on in the home is also a predictor, as this time increased, so the child’s score at school entry decreased.” (Page 7, ‘Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes’, Sue Roulstone James Law, Robert Rush, Judy Clegg, Tim Peters)

What all the research proves is that language development and socio-economic status is irrevocably bound together, but with many complex variables. It also proves our common sense notion that early language in the home is crucial for strong child language development that helps children to thrive as young, inquisitive learners. The role of the parent can be an essential role model for curiosity and inquisitiveness.

On a positive note, the limitations of social class need not bind all children, nor limit the capacity of their curiosity. By creating a literacy rich “communication environment” in school, whilst aiming to better foster this type of environment in the homes of all parents, we can help students transcend the boundaries of their social class.

Closing local libraries, cutting programmes like Sure Start, and the prohibitive cost of pre-school for many, surely seems incredibly short sighted in light of such research. We should encourage our politicians to focus keenly on early years education – it is paramount for the future of our children. In an age of austerity, to cut such services is deeply short-sighted. What price a literate nation? It is a question well worth asking.

As a father and a teacher I am keeping an open ear to the ‘why‘ questions that come my way. Appropriately, I will end on an open question: how can we better foster curiosity in our young children? Finding successful answers to this question could have tremendous benefits for us all.

12 thoughts on “Curiosity killed by class?”

  1. An interesting post, Alex. Totally agree with you on Sure Start and libraries.

    Just to pick up on one point here which the media seems to be propagating at the moment. The cost of preschool is not prohibitive unless you are talking about f/t nursery/childcare. Every parent is entitled to 15 hours a week of free preschool education from the term after their child turns 3. For children from disadvantaged backgrounds this can start from the age of 2. At our voluntary run setting the hourly rate for fee paying parents is £3.50 an hour, which we don’t feel is ‘prohibitive’, and we have a scheme to support any parents who struggle to pay.

  2. Great post Alex. One thing I’ve noticed about schools I’ve visited to which appear extremely successful in deprived areas is how curious their students are- I’ll never forget visiting an ARK Academy at which time spent questioning me (as a visitor) was perceived as a reward by students – I was duly interrogated with thoughtful and worthwhile questions.

    I’d be interested to read more about how you stimulate curiosity in your students. I’ve heard, although don’t have to hand, frightening statistics about how few complex or intriguing questions the ‘average’ student asks each year. But I think well-chosen hooks & time spent helping students hone their questions can help to counter-act what you describe above…

  3. I enjoyed reading this Alex. I remember reading Tizard and Hughes in the early 90s. They concluded (if I remember rightly) children’s language development before starting school made a significant difference to their chances of them succeeding at school, and the main contributory factor, to the development of their language, was the time they spent speaking to their mums.

    Alan Dyson has come to a similar conclusion. When I heard him speak about five years ago, he said the most important single factor in the chances of a child succeeding in school is the level of education of the child’s mother.

    I believe the situation has grown worse since the mid-80s. A significant difference is the emergence of 24 hour children’s TV and TV on-demand. Now I don’t want to sound like a reactionary, and I’m certainly not anti-technology, however it would be foolish to ignore that many children spend far more time (both before they start education and after they begin) watching much more TV than they did when Tizard and Hughes conducted their research in the mid-80s.

    My copy of ‘Young Children Learning’ has a picture of little girl talking to her mum, while her mum does the ironing. It looks almost quaint now.

    My point is, the situation has gotten progressively worse. As educators, we can’t do much about what happens at home (especially pre-school) and we certainly can’t have much of an effect on what Nickelodeon show and how often, so, we must concentrate on what we can do in school to make a difference and help children develop the language (and curiosity) they need to become effective learners.

    In my opinion we need to give speaking and questioning as high a priority as literacy and maths. Across the entire curriculum.

    The new curriculum does not help in this regard. But, irrespective of the NC and the education philosophy of Government ministers, it is our responsibility as educators to make it happen in our schools.

    1. I whole-heartedly agree Tim. I’m a child of television myself, but the pervasiveness of it now is incontrovertible. I find it a tricky topic now as a parent. I do think the outreacht to parents, with a subtle education about such matters like early language, is still a policy area we can develop so much more. That said, you’re right, we can make a difference in the classroom.

  4. Hi Alex,
    Great questions to ask.
    Have you seen this link? Work done in the 1970’s by Maurice Galton, the ORACLE project. Had similar issues. Have we really been trying for 40 years?

    Curiosity is innate for the majority. I worry that certain forms of “schooling” and it’s attendant additional demands, if handled badly, has the potential to diminish curiosity in favour of acceptance, leading to apathy. However, I also see great examples of enquiry based learning and curiosity amongst children whose schools put themselves forward for the Inclusion Quality Mark. Bottom line; they value childhood as a time of discovery.
    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks for the research tip Chris. I do think it is a fine line between enquiry and knowledge acquisition. Too often, they are presented as an either/or dichotomy. I’m interested in this a great deal. Although I hesitate as I’m no EYS expert. Still, I’ll continue the research!

      1. There is no dichotomy between inquiry and knowledge acquisition. Inquiry learning needs knowledge (by which I mean information) as a whale needs air. Just because inquiry might sometimes appear to be ‘discovery’ learning (that is without the teacher, eh, teaching) this is a misunderstanding.

        For an inquiry curriculum to work, there needs to be a very high level of knowledge acquisition. Without knowledge, as many commentators have pointed out, people’s thinking won’t get very far.

        The ‘issue’, as I see it, is not about high quality knowledge acquisition, but about children not having sufficient, on-going, high-quality, opportunities across the curriculum, to develop their speaking, listening, and questioning.

        This has been a problem (as Chris points out) for a least 40 years. It was highlighted by the Cambridge Review, yet was ignored by both Labour and the Coalition. Further, it is not (in my view) a ‘progressive ideology’ – both Hirsch and Willingham put great stress on the importance of students having significant and regular opportunities to speak and ask questions.

        – Reading through this comment, it sounds a bit grumpier than I intended. Sorry, not meant as an attack, I’m just very frustrated how little this topic gets discussed in this way.

  5. Interesting read Alex. I would recommend Paul Tough’s Whatever it Takes. Touches on this issue concerning language deficit. As an English teacher one of my approaches is to continually challenge students’ talk encouraging them to refine and develop their responses. This is not a panacea to the problem but a start at least.

    Thanks for sharing. I shall investigate the texts you have cited.

  6. Sinead Gaffney

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I agree it’s so important to think about this. Another relevant piece of research from the 80s is Gordon Wells’ ‘The Meaning Makers’, a large longitudinal study of children in Bristol. Here, the researchers strapped small tape recorders to fifty (?) preschool children once a week for three years (I need to check the specifics of this, working from memory here) and the recorders switched on and off randomly throughout the toddlers’ days. It’s a phenomenal piece of research. Wells didn’t find a big difference between the amount of talking in middle class and working class homes. He did find some differences between the kinds of talk that happened. So, mc class parents were more likely to ask their children teacher-types of question to which the adult already knew the answer (how many spoons are on the table?).
    What Wells et al did find was that teachers’ positioning of wc/mc children had an enormous impact on the children’s success at school. School was geared towards the success of mc children, partly because the mc children had already had so many school types of conversation and partly because of teachers’ expectations of those children. I’m a teacher by the way (no teacher bashing here).
    The research is a great read and the second edition includes a good discussion of other research in the field. Highly recommend it. It tracks the children’s literacy development till the end of primary school, including interviews with the children and excerpts of their writing. (I realise I sound like a Wells’ groupie here. It has had a huge impact on my own outlook and practice. It was also very influential in my decision to start my EdD, a professional part-time doctorate). Go have a look. It’s important and relevant to this discussion.

Leave a Reply to Alex QuigleyCancel reply


Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox:

Scroll to Top