Encouraging Digital Curiosity

Richard Culatta

One of the best ways to use technology with teens is as a tool to encourage their curiosity. With just a bit of modeling from parents and teachers, young people can begin to recognize the digital world as a super-powerful learning library where they can find answers to all kinds of questions. Becoming learning explorers is one of the most important skills to thriving in a digital world. Supporting digital curiosity can happen at almost any moment and in many ways.

Children are naturally curious. Asking questions is an important part of how they make sense out of the world around them. As parents, we can take advantage of these questions to help encourage digital curiosity. When a child asks “why does the moon look orange tonight?” or “what type of bug is this?”, we can use these moments to show them the power of online tools for finding answers. Responding with “Let’s look it up” or “I bet we can find the answer online” helps them connect the digital world to their curiosity as they begin to recognize technology as a tool for knowledge construction. Along the way we might also talk to them about the types of search terms might lead to the most effective results.

In addition to pointing teens to digital sources for answers, we also need to help them recognize what types of information are most valuable for their purposes. We can model looking at the source, date, and purpose of a digital resource to help them understand that some digital information is more reliable than others. Sites like Wikipedia are a great starting point, (there is even a Wikipedia Simple English version for younger readers), and teens can then dive deeper into more authoritative sources from there.

Part of encouraging digital curiosity is helping identify specialized apps and websites - beyond search engines - that align to our teens’ interests. In the same way that we recommend new books to young readers, supportive adults should also be recommending good apps and websites to our teens to help expand their digital palates. When my son seemed particularly interested in space, I suggested he try an app like Sky Guide to help learn more. By pointing the phone at the sky, we might discover that the bright light above our house is actually the planet Venus and that it is 162 million miles away. We might look up the circumference of the earth on Wikipedia (about 25,000 miles) and then calculate that 162 million miles is the same as going around the earth about 6,500 times. We could use the Wolfram Alpha app to get the speed of light (about 300,000 kilometers per second) and figure out it would take about 15 minutes for the light we’re seeing to have traveled from Venus before it reaches our eyes.

Finally, let’s remember that encouraging curiosity in the digital world isn’t just about connecting to information but to other people. If there is a particular question or topic of interest you might model posting the question on Facebook or a community app to see what other people in our network have to say. Modeling the use of technology to help encourage creativity and learning sets our children up to be successful in a world where the ability to find answers to information is one of the most important life-skills. Even just an occasional modeling of answering questions using the digital tools is enough to help teens see their digital devices as learning tools rather than only entertainment tools.

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