Bill Gates on student curiosity

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.

—Bill Gates

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.”

10 thoughts on “Bill Gates on student curiosity

  1. This reminds me of a This American Life program that looked at differences in education outcome starting in preschools. What the reporter found was the reverse of what he (she?) expected: the low-income preschool was all about order, respect for authority, and learning the basics, while the high-income preschool was much more loosely structured, and favored play and creativity over skill sets. What the more “successful” (statistically) kids learned wasn’t how to count or sing the alphabet, it was that school was fun.

    Perhaps it is not contradictory to acknowledge that no one is equally curious about all subjects and still to refuse to allow this general knowledge influence how we treat individuals in a classroom. Perhaps we have to create a “pedagogical fiction” and treat every student as if he/she were capable of becoming curious in whatever material we are teaching. It seems to me there is everything to gain and almost nothing to lose (does Bill Gates really think that by subjecting students to a restrictive, rote system anything is gained in the long run?).

  2. Leaving aside the validity of Mr. Gate’s claim, his reasoning is pretty curious. The solution is to add to the level of drudgery of those who find learning drudgery as it is?!

  3. I’m curious how, after all these years and billions of dollars, Microsoft came up with such a lousy operating system in MS 8. Maybe he can explain how so many intelligent people decided upon this product?

  4. He is using the word ‘curious’ in place of ithe word he really means, which is ‘intelligent;. That way he figured that us dopes wouldn’t realize how smug and offensive his message really is. He is so very smart! The world must listen to him!

  5. Look, Spot!
    See Bill Gates.
    He is rich.
    He wants to run the world’s public education system.
    He doesn’t care about what the people or children want.
    He is rich.
    Many rich people are like him.
    The End

  6. Didn’t anyone else here grow up with a lot of other people who, from very early ages as seemingly as an extension of their personality and temperament, were substantially less curious than they were about most subjects taught in school? I did. Gates’ comments seem completely uncontroversial to me.

    Here’s an example that flows in the other direction. I have always had very little interest in or curiosity about professional sports or celebrity gossip. If either of these subjects were taught as classes in school, I would try to figure out the minimum amount of work I had to put in to get my A and stop there and not go an inch farther and otherwise zone out entirely.

    I was significantly more curious than my peers about the kinds of things taught in school, and just as significantly less curious about the kinds of ‘extracurricular’ entertainments not part of the curriculum. This didn’t help me socially, but it did help me scholastically and professionally.

    So, I’m probably missing the big point here and I’d like your help. Why is everyone so mad at Gates for what I consider to be an obvious and benign expression of his beliefs about differences in educational motivation?

    • Thanks for your comment. Yes, certainly, we’ve all seen how curiosity (the levels and areas where it’s expressed) vary from individual to individual. I don’t mean to suggest that human beings are naturally equally curious across all domains, nor should they be.

      To get to the heart of your question, though I can’t speak for anyone but myself, as an educator Gates’ comment strikes me as very wrongheaded. The way to address an apparent lack of curiosity in students is not to make school less fun by giving teachers less leeway in designing curricula and implementing a standardized testing regime that takes up good learning time. One of the most formative moments of my learning years was when my middle school eliminated the gifted program because it was deemed too elitist. My peers and I were all placed in a “regular” language arts class. The teacher relied heavily on a text book, which didn’t interest *any* of us. I wondered back then, as I do now, why they couldn’t teach everyone the way they taught us in our gifted classes, where learning was, at heart, play, exploration, and discovery. Instead of answering questions out of a textbook, a lot of our assignments were project based, and we were allowed to pursue our own individual interests, rather than being herded through a series of uninspired and uninspiring battery of reading comprehension questions.

  7. […] Note that this is a very individualized and forgiving view of human development, and one that can resonate throughout a lifetime if we continue to sit with it. Within this framework, I am creating a support system for young people during the critical, early years of emerging adulthood, when many of them exit care with the scantest of resources. The outcomes I shoot for are nothing less than what many people wish for their own children: personal well-being and professional fulfillment. We want to give them the very best so they can be their very best. But how can this happen if we push them through programs that are designed according to preconceived and misguided notions of their capabilities? […]

  8. […] Note that this is a very individualized and forgiving view of human development, and one that can resonate throughout a lifetime if we continue to sit with it. Within this framework, I am creating a support system for young people during the critical, early years of emerging adulthood, when many of them exit care with the scantest of resources. The outcomes I shoot for are nothing less than what many people wish for their own children: personal well-being and professional fulfillment. We want to give them the very best so they can be their very best. But how can this happen if we push them through programs that are designed according to preconceived and misguided notions of their capabilities? […]

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