Is being “curious” about something enough?

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”-Albert Einstein

I recently listened to an incredible NPR show “From Curiosity to Discovery” (thanks to Google Alerts and my good friend Bo Adams for recommending it).  The entire episode was rife with examples of how inquiry leads to innovation, impact or pure discovery–something that wasn’t necessarily intended on the outset of the venture. I was particularly drawn to Adam Savage’s (producer of Mythbusters) segment. One moment he says of his shows: “We realized that the strongest episodes were the ones driven by the narrative of our curiosity, you know. That is the nature of science. It’s often that you – you know, the discovery is not the end of a line of looking for something. It’s tangential to it because something happens you didn’t expect. Someone said that the phrase that typifies real discovery isn’t, eureka, but, huh, that’s funny.” When something happens you didn’t expect, your mind is expanded, and you may even have more questions that come up in response, which means that learning continues–it isn’t halted because you have the answer. Waypoints not endpoints are foundational to learning, discovery and personal growth. Curiosity is clearly something worth following and pursuing, so why, too often, does formal education get in the way? Why do students feel they don’t have enough time to explore their curiosities or interests? 

Recently, David Brooks wrote a piece in the New York Times that has generated a great deal of discussion about what it means to be “a real person.” It’s mainly an exploration of an article and book by William Deresiewicz about the elite education of Americans. However, I think much of what he writes could easily be applied to the education system as a whole. It is true that “the system pressures them [students] to be excellent, but excellent sheep.” Building self and becoming soul can’t happen if we don’t allow encourage our students to explore curiosities and take risks without the pressure of grades. This means we build a system that supports that risk taking. We can’t always predict what curiosities will lead to, and that’s the beauty of it. I’m excited to, no, I’m honored, to be let into the minds of these students who follow something they’re curious about simply because they can. Not because they have to, but because they can.  Isn’t that what we hope for the next generation? That the next generation will feel compelled to be curious about and question the world? And that they’ll feel empowered to act even when something happens that they may not expect? That’s my hope.

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