04/22/2014 03:03 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

A Culture of Curiosity

Six months ago, I relocated to a village called Bishanpur in the rural Kishanganj District, Bihar, in India to serve SEEKHO, the NGO I founded.

Last week, I woke up at 6:00am and went for a run towards a village called Chainpur five kilometers away. Once I reached the village, Sarfraj, a 10-year-old student of ours, began running by my side. He was wearing jeans, flip-flops, and a sweater, and despite that, he ended up running the entire five kilometers with me back to Bishanpur.

When we reached Bishanpur, I asked Sarfraj if he had ever been running before, and he said no. Sensing my surprise, he told me that because he had never run before, he wanted to see what it felt like, so he used that spirit of wonder to propel himself the full five kilometers.

This level of curiosity, however, is rare in Bishanpur.

Sarfraj rarely goes to school, because he says no teaching happens there, but he spends as much time as we allow him to in our SEEKHO center learning computer and asking us questions about English, India, or general knowledge.

Sarfraj's curiosity is unusual, but it may be so strong precisely because he does not attend school and carves out a lot of time for exploration that he has been able to remain so curious. For everyone else, we have identified three constraints to curiosity in rural Bihar:

1. High levels of social obligation
2. Fixed mindsets
3. No language of curiosity

High levels of social obligation

Communal cultures lower the costs of economic exchange amongst members and create a strong sense of belonging that is one of the most satisfying aspects of being human. At the same time, however, group membership, which facilitates the group's ultimate success, is dependent upon one fulfilling his or her duties to those above him or her in the hierarchy. A dependency on obligations and rules can lower the tendency to ask questions or engage in critical inquiry.

Fixed Mindsets

Meanwhile, reputation and gossip are a kind of evolutionary adaptation that help reward the compliant and punish cheaters. As a result, individuals provide scarce resources to one another to gain the multiplier effects of the group working together. However, people who are very concerned about their reputations are more likely to have a fixed mindset, in which they believe that intelligence and abilities are fixed quantities, rather than able to be changed through effort. Having a fixed mindset is antithetical to asking questions, as asking a question exposes what we do not know, which would be seen as a permanent mark on our intelligence.

No language of curiosity

As a result of these two factors, the language of curiosity is absent. When we recently interviewed a group of high school students participating in a leadership course, 0 out of 20 knew what jigyasa, or curiosity, meant. Even if they understood it conceptually, it is difficult to discuss, encourage, and practice curiosity in the absence of the proper language.

What we did about it

With the goal of increasing curiosity, and therefore learning, we tested five interventions with a group of SEEKHO volunteer teachers aged 16-20: mindfulness, gratitude, active constructive response, character strengths, and the growth mindset. In a variety of contexts, these five have been shown to increase self-awareness, ability to cope with emotions, resilience, empathy, communication, interpersonal relationships, critical thinking, and creative thinking.

As relates to the growth mindset, we taught the students that important aspects of intelligence can be developed through effort, and summarized research on how a growth mindset increases achievement and grades.

Here's what we found

We measured student well-being before and after the intervention using the scientifically validated EPOCH survey: Engagement, Perseverance, Optimism, Connectedness, and Happiness. Using a scale of 1-5, average student well-being rose from a 3.65 before to a 4.10 after, and students increased in all areas but optimism, which remained unchanged. In addition, engagement, which is most closely tied to curiosity, increased from a 3.12 to a 4.31.

Equally, if not more importantly, were the stories that came out of the process. For example, two volunteers, who previously defined one another as "enemies" said that they now consider one another best friends; the well-being language and interventions allowed them to empathize and see past their differences. In addition, the volunteers began asking why so much trash lines the streets of their village. They went into the village, interviewed people and devised a plan to clean it.

After overcoming some initial hesitation to clean the trash, as it is seen as the work of lower castes, they challenged this notion to clean up a trash-ridden area around our facility. While this space had been previously unusable and potentially dangerous to health, the volunteers transformed it in a matter of two hours, after which time children began playing cricket and volleyball on it.

We have been able to leverage the culture of social obligation to create a subculture, in which one's duty to the group is to ask questions and facilitate one another's learning, rather than to merely fulfill a fixed role. As a result of this culture, student empathy, curiosity, and sense of empowerment is increasing and having positive ripple effects around the village.

We may not all be born as curious as Sarfraj, but, at SEEKHO, we are starting to develop the concrete steps needed to foster a culture of curiosity. If we hope to see a more peaceful and prosperous India, then let us work together to build and spread this culture.