In Praise of Curiosity

The following is a post from a current University lecturer who wanted to share their thoughts anonymously…

Let us imagine for a moment that testing our primary school children on their knowledge will prepare them, and even prepare the world, for greater tests to come. What might those greater tests be? Could the greatest tests be those conducted in science: What kind of tiny sub-atomic particles could be discovered next? What will happen if the ice sheet continues to retreat at its current rate? What are the possibilities of genetic science for new kinds of medicine? Or, the greatest tests might be those carried out in the humanities and social sciences: What is the ethical response to a crisis of migration? How should democracy relate to new technologies and digital devices? Could robots ever feel emotions like humans do?

There is no doubt that these kinds of tests are important, for they test the limits of human knowledge and, if we fail to rise to their challenge, then the consequences will be serious indeed, even catastrophic. Allow me to ask the next question, then, what kinds of people can meet these tests and rise to their challenge? I have been lucky enough to spend 20 years in Universities, teaching the future generation of young people, many of whom have gone on to work on precisely these kinds of testing issues. They were all different, those remarkable students, but they were the same in one important and uniting respect: their curiosity.

Curiosity is the most important spark of energy needed for all scientific discovery, for all human knowledge and understanding. It is a curiosity present in all children, all of the “what if” questions, the playful staging of new possibilities and surprising combinations. As the Nobel prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman once said, “it has to do with curiosity, with wonder and wondering what makes something happen”. I have seen the evidence of this every year for twenty years – those young people most curious, most able to ask “what if” questions, most brave in their reading, their writing and their investigations. Of course, we do test and grade our students – my university department is among the best in the world in its discipline – but the even the bald metrics of the ‘First Class degree’ reward curiosity, courage, and fascination.

And so, the damage that is done when we drive out our children’s capacity for curiosity and wonder is of the utmost importance. If the space to explore the world beyond the classroom is diminished, if reading for pleasure gives way to phonic decoding, if knowledge and understanding is valued only in grades, great damage is done. I have begun to see it in today’s new undergraduates – they have begun to ask “should I mention *** if I want to get good marks?”, and “how many points should I make to cover what is expected in the answer?” Often, it can take three years of a degree to dispel the myth, learned in school, that there are formulaic rules for the answering of questions. It takes time, in effect, to recapture and restore the curiosity of a small child in the mind of a young adult. In testing to formulae we damage their curiosity, their future and life chances. But we also damage our own. For the world’s most testing problems require a curiosity that can itself never be captured by the test.

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One thought on “In Praise of Curiosity

  1. Such truth, and it is so sad. As a primary school teacher I spend much of the day feeling guilty when I’m drilling my 7/8 Year olds in grammar instead of letting them learn through experience and play.

    Like

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