Faculty Development Center

Curiosity As a Learning Device

In 2006, a year after the latest remake of King Kong, Curious George finally came to the screen. Curious George, in the books by the husband and wife team, Margaret and H. A. Rey, has given generations of parents a new look at the world. Through George’s wondering eyes the world is a fascinating place of nooks and crannies, things to explore, people to upset.

We seem to have a deep suspicion of curiosity. People who are curious provoke our irritation: they poke around in other people’s business and show scant regard for the niceties of social interaction. They seem to come in at least two varieties. There are the ones who blunder and crash their way through life, yanking up growing things to look at the roots or fiddling with wires and buttons until something goes boom!

These are the ones that high-school chemistry teachers fear, the recurring nightmare of the disheveled, relentlessly cheerful 10th grader whose string of disasters usually begins with the line, ‘Heh, what would happen if I put this junk into this other stuff?. . .’

The other group grows up to become mystery writers, investigative reporters, engineers, scientists, teachers and artists. Theirs is often a more solitary form of curiosity worked out in a lab or a studio, a coffee shop late at night, or the wells of thought deep within the soul.

If the first group survives into young adulthood they have every chance of landing in the front ranks of the professionally curious, perhaps as cops or detectives or munitions experts, vulcanologists and sky-diving instructors.

But Curious George delights us in part because he reminds us of ourselves—before we learned that curiosity could lead to punishment. Somewhere in the long tunnel that is American education the curiosity of many students was asphyxiated. Maybe it was too much visual stimulation and not enough imagination, or a shrinking attention span, or textbooks that piled on useless information. Whatever the causes, many students simply lack curiosity about what they study.

Okay, I’ll grant you there isn’t much time left for wonder in the average student’s day when the first priority is what must be done to pass the course. Pragmatism and efficiency are the watchwords: students find the shortcuts and they don’t waste time in speculation once they see the assignments list. Get in, get the job done, and get out seems to be the modus operandi. That’s great if you’re part of a SWAT team but it’s not so good if you’re trying to synthesize ideas. That’s a higher order of thinking and reflecting that takes some time to acquire. But simple curiosity as to how the world works is the beginning of learning.

John Gardner, novelist, poet, and writing teacher, suggested to his students that they watch the edges of the action, the people at the periphery. That’s where the real story unfolds, he said, in the shadows with the people most often overlooked. Everyone sees the figures in the spotlight—no surprises there. But what does the guy operating the spotlight think? Does he pride himself on hitting the mark exactly right, night after night, as the singer takes to the runway and drops into the crowd?

"Consider the lilies," said Jesus. They toil not nor do they spin, but who are the people who raise them, harvest them, and send them to market? Look at your stapler, a humble device to be sure. Where do the staples come from? What is the tensile strength of the wire that is used? And what a great design idea to put that little spring-loaded thingie at the back that thrusts the staple train forward!

Remembering that ‘curiosity killed the cat,’ we are also reminded that cats have upwards of nine lives, the better to indulge their curiosity, no doubt. I would hope for my students that they become—and remain—curious. It’s the door to possibilities that lift the spirit and the mind.

Comments (1)

Joy Casey:

Let not the responsibility or blame only lie with the students, but with the teacher also. When I was in college, taking curriculum and instruction classes in preparation to teach mathematics, one of the faculty members told the class a story. I only remember a few details, but it was about a little boy in elementary school who loved to draw and color. He was probably much like Eden. But the teacher insisted that he learn how to draw a red rose with a green stem. Day after day, she would come by his desk and reprimand him for coloring outside the lines or for drawing purple daisies with blue stems. Finally, he gave in, and drew red roses with green stems, as the teacher demanded. One day, there was a new teacher in class...and she told the students that they could draw anything they wanted to...and the little boy proceeded to draw a red rose with a green stem...

At the college and graduate level, professors may be working with students who have been damaged by this sort of educational experience... For some of us, creativity and curiosity have been punished and suppressed so long that it will take more than one college or graduate course...and even sometimes more than a college or graduate degree...for us to believe in being curious again...

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