The Most Important Student Trait Your District is Overlooking

I’ll give you a hint – it starts with the letter C. And it’s not collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, competence, cooperation, citizenship, confidence, capability, or college and career readiness. Those are probably top of mind in most districts. The essential student trait you’re overlooking is hopefully what you’re experiencing right now: curiosity.

We’re all born with this natural attribute, and it’s one of the most delightful traits students bring with them to school. Curiosity helps our brains focus, motivates investigation, and inspires new discoveries. And you’d be hard-pressed to find any parent, guardian, or educator who would argue that students should not be curious in both school and life. Yet curiosity remains functionally overlooked as an outcome that’s intentionally cultivated in PreK-12 education; it can’t be found when we examine standards, curricular documents, assessments, and report cards. And curiosity is rarely found explicitly in print materials and online resources.

I first became interested in curiosity over 15 years ago when I was the K-12 Mathematics Coordinator and Strategic Planning Facilitator in my district as we were creating a new mission, vision, and strategic plan. One key part of our new mission was that “all students are capable, curious, and confident learners.” We had added “curious” as an adjective in the second draft, and we kept it through five more revisions as we engaged in community review and gathered input.

During those community conversations, one frequently asked question was, “Can you ever really know if someone’s curious?” To which I would always reply, “It sounds to me like you’re curious.” The English word “curious” was created we needed a way to describe unique, observable characteristics that we didn’t yet have a word for.

Curiosity is an Important Characteristic that Educators Want


"Curiosity and Motivation"

Strong evidence that students were engaged with a program

In a 2022 EdWeek Research Center study, 29% of teachers and administrators said that “curiosity and motivation” were strong evidence that students were engaged with a program. This was the second highest-rated feature after “learning gains” (35%). 

Having spent the last 13 years leading the development of the most effective student self-directed online adaptive math program, creating the conditions that nurture and evoke students’ innate curiosity has been at the forefront of the work I’ve done. Even though we know we want students to be curious, we need to define the specifics of what it looks like in practice so that we can cultivate it and nurture it in students.

What Does Curiosity Look Like?

If we want to nurture curiosity and help students, educators, and parents understand what it looks like, we need to develop and align on some explicit indicators and standards for curiosity. Often, people think of “asking questions” or saying “I wonder if” are a primary indicator that someone is curious, but curiosity goes much broader and deeper than that. 

In addition to those behaviors, generating hypotheses, making observations, and a student’s willingness to engage as a learner with topics they’re not passionate about can also indicate they are curious as they engage in lessons and learning.

My preferred method for developing and communicating goals and learning outcomes is to use rubrics because they show a continuum and range that’s helpful for student self-reflection and growth. Below are three examples of how curiosity exhibits itself along the dimensions of questioning, skepticism, and interest. The verbiage in these examples is targeted toward the middle and high school levels, but the vocabulary in these rubrics could easily be adjusted for the elementary levels.

In addition to those behaviors, generating hypotheses, making observations, and a student’s willingness to engage as a learner with topics they’re not passionate about can also indicate they are curious as they engage in lessons and learning.

Rubrics for Observing and Assessing Three Curiosity Traits



I continually ask insightful questions both inside and outside of class that extend the conversation and learning into new areas.

I ask questions before, during, and after class that are relevant to the current conversation and lesson. I'm not complacent with just simple answers.
I ask unrelated questions or just ask for facts. I ask questions only when prompted, and only think about problems someone else tells me about.
Regardless of the topic, I ask few, if any, questions either before or after being presented with problems, questions, or information.


When presented with information, problems, or questions, I question the underlying assumptions and perspective of the presenter to find deeper meaning.
When I am presented with a problem or new information, I ask questions to determine its meaning and begin reasoning to assess validity and credibility.Â
I often trust what I hear or read, but if something sounds really weird, I ask questions to learn more.
I immediately accept what is presented. I want an easy answer or method, so I can mindlessly use it forever.


I’m always excited to listen, learn, and engage regardless of the topic. I’m genuinely curious about most things.
Though I'm more enthusiastic about learning in areas that interest me, I can work to listen, learn, engage, and ask questions about any subject in school.
It's difficult for me to engage and ask questions if I don't care about the topic. My body language often reveals my engagement.
If I don't like what I'm learning or don't care about it, I usually don't engage and don't appear interested in the conversation.

Every classroom teacher can give you the names of students who match these rubric descriptors. And for students who aren’t yet proficient with some of these curiosity traits, the rubric paints a picture of how they can grow into proficiency and beyond. 

Tools like these can help us bring curiosity out of obscurity and ensure we don’t ignore it any longer. What we assess and report about student learning communicates to students exactly what we value. If we value curiosity, then we need to develop and use more tools like this one.

What's Next in this Blog Series

Be sure to watch for future blog posts in this series, where I’ll share practical ideas for how to assess and report on students’ curiosity along with strategies for cultivating curiosity in our classrooms with intentional lesson design.

Explore the DE Blog to Find More Ideas, Articles, and Advice!