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.