Curiosity can’t go it alone

Teacher Helping Students with QuestionsAs we visit schools and speak with educators all over the world, my colleagues and I are always on the lookout for attitudes toward curiosity. Is it encouraged or quashed? Is it treated as a necessity, an impractical luxury, or—conversely, as a nuisance or a distraction?

While doing research for McREL’s newest book, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives, I was struck by the fact that we’re all born with curiosity, but some of us, in effect, lose access to it. Over time, this loss often pervades many aspects of our lives, not just schooling; without guidance, such as from a talented teacher or inspiring leader, natural curiosity can wither to the point of near uselessness.

“Childhood curiosity is a collaboration between child and adult,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (2015). It’s the availability and effectiveness of that collaboration, perhaps more than any other resource gap, that may separate the haves and have-nots of the future.

If curiosity were entirely natural and self-sustaining, there would be no need for teachers; we’d all learn through exploration fueled by our own curiosity. In reality, though, very few students are adequately self-directed to take charge of their own education.

Part of the problem is that society supplies the building blocks of curiosity unequally to different groups of children, Leslie writes. Remember when we were worried that unequal access to technology—the digital divide—would lead to a knowledge gap? Poorer children are now spending more time with internet-enabled screens than richer ones, yet that hasn’t catapulted their achievement: “Rather than a great dumbing down, it’s likely that we are at the beginning of a cognitive polarization—a division into the curious and the incurious,” Leslie warns.

In addition to outside guidance, two additional forces must be present for curiosity to work, Leslie argues. Students need to be gaining background knowledge—accessing the basic facts, figures, and processes that facilitate new learning—something schools traditionally excel at delivering. And, they need to develop skills at asking high-quality questions that lead to future exploration and new knowledge. Only if children can be taught the importance of questioning, and how to do it with purpose, will they close the curiosity gap, Leslie suggests: “A school is a crucible of curiosity. It can imbue young children’s fledgling desire to learn with strength and sinew, or it can be the place where it is allowed to atrophy.”

Which is all to say: Don’t let all our talk about curiosity fool you into thinking that we’ve somehow taken sides against traditional education and traditional educators. Nothing could be further from our minds. Remember that curiosity is, broadly speaking, the ability to identify gaps in one’s own knowledge and execute a plan to fill them. That’s just too much for most people to accomplish on their own in a meaningful way. But, any school that places curiosity at the center of learning, and draws learners into its orbit with teacher guidance, background knowledge, and high-quality questioning is very much the ideal place for curious learners to grow and flourish.

Bryan GoodwinBryan Goodwin is the CEO of McREL International as well as our chief curiosity proponent. His most recent book, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives came out in September 2018.

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