Does curiosity make kids better at math and reading?

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Characteristics related to openness, such as intellectual curiosity and confidence, may make children more adept at math and reading than characteristics that describe conscientiousness, such as diligence and perseverance, a new study shows.

“Our findings provide additional knowledge on the complex set of skills that interact and give rise to differences in academic achievement between children, as well as the complexity of genetic architecture of academic achievement, which is made of many parts beyond intellect,” says Margherita Malanchini, a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department and the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

Prior studies have linked differences in academic skills to differences in self-regulation, or how well children can control their behaviors and internal states against a backdrop of conflicting or distracting situations, drives, and impulses.

However, self-regulation is a broad construct that incorporates both intellectual abilities, such as executive functioning, and personality traits, such as conscientiousness, researchers say.

To understand the underlying skills and characteristics of self-regulation and how they contribute to differences in reading and math proficiency, researchers collected data from more than 1,000 twins, ages 8-14, in the Texas Twin Project, a large population-based twin study that UT Austin psychology associate professors Elliot Tucker-Drob and Paige Harden direct.

Studies on twins allow researchers to isolate and observe the impact of genetic and environmental factors—in this case, on the association between self-regulation and academic skills.

Even after accounting for intelligence, researchers found a strong link between executive functioning—the ability to plan, organize, and complete tasks—and proficiency in reading and math.

The study also shows that children who are higher in executive functioning demonstrate increases in levels of openness, intellectual curiosity, and confidence. These links were attributed to shared genetic factors (60 percent) and environmental factors (40 percent). Researchers didn’t see the same for personality characteristics describing how conscientious and diligent a child is.

“This indicates that some of the genetic factors that predispose children to do well in school are also the same genetic factors that predispose children to be more open to new challenges, creative, intellectually curious, and confident in their own academic ability,” Tucker-Drob says.

The research appears in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Source: University of Texas at Austin