Learning and being curious

Curiosity killed the cat. Because I’m a dog person I was delighted. But as soon as we leave formal education, dog people and cat people alike, curiosity is probably the thing that’s going to drive most of our learning. That cat-killing compulsion will replace the person at the front of the class and take charge of what and when we learn.

Learning takes effort. Learning something new can leave us feeling enriched, satisfied and proud, but it can also leave us tired, challenged, and sometimes even frustrated. It’s no surprise that we need something like curiosity to keep us motivated. We need to be able to create and maintain a sense of arousal and motivation for as long as it takes us to ‘do the learning’. So what’s troubling me is, ‘how can a user experience architect help with this?


I’ve got a fleeting admiration for Donald Rumsfeld. Just like curioslity I suspect he too is responsible for his fair share of killing – but it doesn’t mean we should ignore him (does it?). I admire him not for all the killing, but for that famous speech.

In a world where political nuance is occasionally treated as a vice, at least he had a go. Rumsfeld tried to explain the difference between things that we know and all the other stuff – the things that we don’t know.

He was trying to explain that there’s not just a bucket we keep at the bottom of the garden, full of all the stuff that we don’t know, but which has an index that catalogues exactly what’s in it.  He pointed out this wasn’t the whole story.

Indexed unknowns – the bucket list of learning ­- is an easily accessible route map through the things we don’t know much about, apart from that they exist.

But there’s another type of things we don’t know. This is more like a different kind of bucket – probably an invisible one with a sticker of a unicorn on the side – and its contents are a mystery to us.

Two buckets - one has a unicorn on it

A challenge of building learning experiences is making sure that all of the ‘stuff’ that a learner might need (or want) on the way has been put in the indexed, catalogued list of stuff they don’t yet know, but are aware of – the ‘learning bucket list’, rather than hiding away, invisible in that mysterious unicorn-adorned mystery bucket.

We know this is true from the way people search. Sometimes a user will know what they’re looking for. Occasionally it’s even a specific resource that they just need to get back to. At other times they know the specific questions, and just need an answer – which they’ll have a good chance of recognizing and judging whether it’s to be trusted. At other times, and actually quite often in learning, they don’t have a question, just a rough area of knowledge they want to explore.

Two weeks ago my car wouldn’t start. I don’t know a lot about cars, so my first web search was something along the lines of ‘Skoda Fabia VRS won’t start’. I came across a few pages and started to build a picture. Batteries and starter motors both seemed like things I needed to know more about. As I researched I found links to pages that might be useful – I was discovering more about the ‘Skoda fabia VRS won’t start’ domain (a sub domain of the more general ‘car wont start). I was beginning to add detail as I built a more complete mental map of my problem and the possible solutions. I was adding to the things on my list of ‘things I don’t know’ in my big black bucket.

Defining the problem

I think we need to create learning products that are as close as possible to colouring-in books.

Colouring-in is brilliant. It is both a little bit prescriptive and usually quite empowering – just like good learning. The clear demarcation of a black-and-white outline sets the boundaries of the picture. But this outline creates the space in which to experiment. These line-marked shapes of a colouring-in picture are like the unknowns that we know about – they set the shape and nature of the challenge, but leave it up to us about how we get to the finished article. There might be hints and tips inherited from the nature of the list and the ‘objects’ on it, but there’s also space to play. As I learnt more about my broken car, the lines between which I needed to experiment became apparent, but before that, before I could identify what I didn’t know, my mind had literally gone blank when faced with the broken motor.

I was a motivated learner when my car wouldn’t start – I needed to be somewhere, but what about other types of learning journey?

To initiate the challenge of learning we must be able to show the user what they’re missing out on. We need to help the learner peer into their ‘unknowns bucket’ select the most appealing subject and use it as a point from which to jump deeper or sideways. We need to arrange ‘bucket lists of learning’ that make sense, so that the learner can spend their limited energies on the learning, rather than the more difficult, and boring, task of shaping their learning journey. Learning online shouldn’t often feel like exploration, it should feel more like orienteering – still seeped in the spirit of adventure, but with plenty of big, bright orange flags to help you on your way.

On your way

One of the odd things about eBooks is that you don’t know how many pages you’ve got left. There is no doubt in my mind that this alters the experience of reading. The number of pages left is an important kinaesthetic feedback mechanism in reading. I find myself ‘putting’ eBooks down mid-chapter much more than paper books – I can’t flick forward and use the fact there are only 8 more pages in the chapter to motivate me to stay awake a little longer. It seems to me that learning journeys that don’t offer a macro view of what to expect to the learner suffer from the same issue. They miss the vital motivating factor of sparking the curiosity by teasing what is coming up next.

I think – in the future – great online learning journeys will help each learner grab something from their ‘known unknowns’ bucket and build an experience that supplements this item with linked stuff from their knowns, their known unkowns and all the stuff from the ‘unicorn bucket’.

Just this would be great, they’re learning already.

But the experience will go further. Each step will add more knowledge around these newly identified “unknowns”.  Some people really believe the truth of the saying “what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her”. But these people are almost always murderers or bigamists. The stuff that you don’t know is the most dangerous of all the acquirable knowledge out there, because through bad signposting (or bad bucket maintenance if you prefer) it’s lost it’s “acquirability”.  I think it’s our job to put all this knowledge back on the map. After all, you can only be curious if you know that there’s something that you don’t know.


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2 responses to “Learning and being curious”

  1. […] online works best when designers have taken time to think about motivation. Online learning needs to be able to motivate users. I think  learning can be made to feel […]

  2. […] ‘continuity’ is at risk. I’ve written before about the challenges of creating inherent motivation when designing learning content, and generally I think the moments of risk are where you’ll […]

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