On curiosity

One of my aims as a teacher is to get my pupils to cultivate their curiosity. This stems from my belief that the reality we inhabit is full of wonder and beauty and that we, as a species, have spent millennia trying to make sense of it. Curiosity will continue to drive the expansion of human knowledge, but what motivates me more is the conviction that each individual pupil – every single one of them – can live a life of richer experiences if they are curious.

I do not think that many would have any deep disagreement with what I have just written. But the realisation of this aim – the cultivation of curiosity – can take us in starkly contrasting directions that make different assumptions about the nature of the human mind.

One approach would be to assume that curiosity exists as a generic characteristic of our personalities. We do after all speak of people as being ‘more’ or ‘less’ curious. From this assumption it is a simple step to say that, if we want pupils to be more curious, we need to get them exercising their curiosity. Those of technocratic leanings might design a framework for measuring curiosity. Enlightened senior leaders who can for a moment set aside the crippling demands of accountability measures might introduce lessons where curiosity is taught. Politicians might even change those accountability measures, asking the inspectorate to comment on the extent to which pupils in a school are curious. The more romantically minded might set their children loose – in gardens, museums and bookshops – on the grounds that this cannot but help to enhance their curiosity. An emphasis might be placed on the conditions in which curiosity flourishes, and we might work on encouraging children to have an emotional response to their experience that opens up, rather than closes down, curiosity. All of this works from the assumption that curiosity is some generic characteristic that is able to grow over time.

But is the case? When I say I want to cultivate curiosity, am I describing a seed that, in the right conditions, will grow and prosper over time?

Perhaps not. What if, alternatively, we say that curiosity is an emergent property, rather than an immanent characteristic? What if we see curiosity not as something we have inside of us, but an expression of our knowledge of the world? It is I think not controversial that the things we are curious about are the things that exist within the realm of our experience. Very young children are curious about the things they can immediately sense: people they meet, animals in a park, or stars in the sky. But toddlers are not curious about Leninism, red-shift or imaginary numbers, for these ideas or phenomena are beyond their experience: you cannot be curious about something of which you are completely unaware.

On this line, when I say that I want to cultivate the curiosity of my pupils, what I am in practice saying is that I want them to be curious about a greater range of things. I want to bring more parts of our reality into the realm of their experience. I cannot make them more or less curious per se: what I can do is give them more things to be curious about.

This is why memories are so important to me. A pupil who has remembered some of the things I taught her about neoclassical architecture is more likely to be curious about a building built in that style. Indeed, she may well be more likely to be curious about a building not built in that style. Another pupil who remembers something I taught him about the causes of cholera in the nineteenth century might have his ears prick up when he hears about an outbreak, or reads about it somewhere else. This is in part what I think people mean when they say that knowledge breeds more knowledge.

So I do not spend my time explicitly trying to teach my pupils to be curious: to do so would be to mistake an emergent property for an immanent characteristic.

Instead I spend my days teaching them things that expand their world view, in order that they have more things about which they can be curious in the future. I want my pupils to leave my lessons with more memories, more delicious starting points, that will take them to places and new experiences that they cannot yet imagine.







9 Comments on On curiosity

  1. “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.”
    From Emerson’s essay on Art.

    I recently found these words circled, asterisked and annotated by my late father, in his copy of Emerson’s essays. I chose to quote them at his funeral, yesterday. I was speaking about what his life-long boyish enthusiasm for memorising and reciting poetry about Gloucestershire did for me, and my brother and sister, as children. I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to do this without being overwhelmed by emotion. Finding my father’s interest in that quotation created a weight that steadied me.

    I read Emerson’s words as: what we carry with us, helps us to see. I think – though I’ll never now be sure – that this is how my father read them too.

    As with so much of Emerson, it can of course be read as an affirmation of the natural, feeding a developmental view of education and a free-floating self-reliance, an encouragement to find truth, beauty etc within ourselves. And, indeed, this was the drift of American philosophy of education of which Emerson was part. But what is so often forgotten, and Emerson himself seemed sometimes strangely to forget (so natural a milieu it was to him) is that Emerson’s curiosity, enthusiasm, discernment and judgement came from his huge learning, his longstanding immersion in philosophy, history, art and literature. It is WHAT we “carry” with us that feeds future capacity to assimilate, to want to know, to solve a problem, to make connection and the courage to make a judgement, aesthetic or moral.

    How odd it is that so much of education has made a god of the innate, of a capacity for carrying, while forgetting that it is our job as teachers to supply what is carried.

    We need to do this intensively, inspirationally and early. They haven’t a hope if we don’t give them the knowledge to join a lively conversation with strangers, dead and alive. They haven’t a hope if they do not have knowledge of disciplinary and artistic traditions, precisely in order to understand their duty, as the next generation, to preserve, renew or challenge those traditions.

    I find the thought of the next wave of madness in education being the elevation of curiosity into an outcome or output – a measure or managed property to be looked for, recorded, rewarded – truly dystopian. But I wouldn’t put it past someone to suggest it. As with those other vital goals, criticality and creativity, it is the oddest development (doubtless a byproduct of technocratic managerialism) this assumption that because something is the hoped for result, we should seek, cultivate and discern its visible incidence ‘en route’, elevating it into the object to be taught. Curriculum is not a production line of the obvious. Teaching must always be a partly tragic activity because some of its most important goods are NOT obvious. Curricular theorising is sophisticated theorising about the indirect.

    Thank you Michael. I found this post both thought-provoking and moving.

    • That was just beautiful
      Thank you!

    • Christine–firstly, my condolences on the loss of your father; and I am pleased that you found comfort in the words of Emerson.

      I am an avid reader of Emerson; therefore, my husband brought your post to my attention. Your observation regarding the Natural is astute; Emerson also deciphered intuition as the primary intellect; therefore, those souls who radiate human character (and, as such, are unpretentious) are those to whom art and beauty speak most profoundly. Two observations on this subject which resonate with me:

      From The Over-Soul: “They seem frigid and phlegmatic to those who have been spiced with the frantic passion and violent coloring of inferior but popular writers.”

      From Love: (spontaneous emotional responses ought not be designated or categorised; rather embraced): “The same remark holds of painting. And of poetry, the success is not attained when it lulls and satisfies, but when it astonishes and fires us with new endeavours after the unattainable.”

      I apologise for the Emersonian filibuster; I am a Classicist, and not wholly familiar with he education sector.

      Best wishes…

  2. The best thing I have done in the recent past was begin to use Twitter in a purposeful way – as a means to connect to the thoughts of wise educators. Reading Mr. Fordham’s tweets lead me to subscribe to this blog, which lead me to read this post and the equally inspiring comment by Ms. Counsell.

    Thank you both.

  3. “Teaching must always be a partly tragic activity because some of its most important goods are NOT obvious. Curricular theorising is sophisticated theorising about the indirect.” Superb.

  4. Great, thank you a lot. I liked a lot, especially this one, actually: ” What if we see curiosity not as something we have inside of us, but an expression of our knowledge of the world? “

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