People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. [...] Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids.
Every day I have to remind myself that people on all sides of the education debates really do have students’ interests at heart, and that differences in opinion stem from the fact that we don’t all agree on the purpose of education, and moreover, that educating as immense and as heterogeneous a population as ours in the United States is a complex problem that invites us to rehearse a great variety of solutions, many of which are at odds with each other. Sometimes, though, someone makes a remark that strikes me as so deeply wrong and offensive, that it bears calling out.
Bill Gates, who has managed to insert himself into the national conversation on education in spite of his lack of experience in managing a classroom full of kids on a daily basis, believes that only a small percentage of kids are highly curious, and that we therefore need to create for them a more restrictive learning system than the one that gave him free rein to explore his interests to great success.
Pretend we’re in my classroom and let’s “unpack” Gates’s statement. First of all, how does he define curiosity and how does he know that only a small percentage of kids are highly curious? More importantly, why is it that the highly curious student is a rare phenomenon?
I assume that Bill Gates has spent a significant amount of time in the presence of toddlers. Anyone who has knows that, unless toddlers suffer from serious developmental cognitive disabilities or are neglected and abused (more on that later), they are all naturally curious. Curiosity, let’s be clear, is a strong desire to learn and know, rooted in a sense of wonder and awe about the world. Children are born to love learning, because learning is vital to survival.
I read somewhere that the infant who repeatedly tosses his food off his tray to the ground is conducting two experiments at once: one in physics, and another in human behavior. Down goes the apple slice, and off Mommy goes to retrieve it. Curiosity is not exceptional in the very young. At a tender age, learning is play.
Something must happen along the way, however, because anyone who has stood before a classroom full of kids knows that there are a certain few who approach learning playfully, while others view it as complete drudgery. What happened to the latter? Bill Gates either assumes that some people are born with numb minds or (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here) that the natural store of curiosity present at infancy has been depleted in the greater part of the population. Either way, though, the solution he proposes is to reinforce a two-tier education system, where the mass of kids who either aren’t “curious” or wealthy enough to get into private schools get stuck in a public system where teachers have very little liberty to pursue their intellectual projects, let alone determine how they might serve the individual interests and needs of a very diverse classroom.
What about trying to figure out how all these children lost their natural curiosity? Dr. Bruce Duncan Perry explains that there are three common ways that children lose their zest for learning: fear, disapproval, and absence. If children lack consistency and security in their lives; if the adults around them try to limit their penchant for exploration; or if they lack a caring adult presence to give them a sense of safety that will enable them to explore and to validate those learning experiences, their natural curiosity will be dampened, if not entirely snuffed out. (It should come as no surprise that children in foster care experience significant learning setbacks.) Let me add another item to Dr. Perry’s list: an uninspired and uninspiring educational system.
What do we do about this? Contrary to the proposal that we keep our children tightly strapped in a highly regimented system (under the banner of “rigor”!), we should be asking how we might kindle the fire that once was there. Here again we should heed the words of Dr. Michael Carrera, who enjoins us to find the gift in every youth and to light a fire. Dr. Perry gives teachers very concrete tips on how to foster curiosity in the classroom.
Why should we even care? Lest I appear to be begging the question of the significance of curiosity to human development, let me point to Dr. Perry’s list of outcomes: exploration, discovery, pleasure, repetition, mastery, new skills, confidence, self esteem, and sense of security. Moreover, this is a positive feedback loop, since a sense of security encourages individuals to be more curious.
Curiosity should be the motivating force and the end goal of every teaching endeavor. As educators we should remain curious about our subject matter and our students’ abilities (children, after all, have an infinite capacity to surprise us), and we should aim as much for discovery and the attainment of knowledge as the pursuit of further questions. This is the positive feedback cycle that will serve our students throughout their entire lives. This is what we mean when we invoke the overused but completely apt phrase, “joyful learning.”