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Young Pupils’ Natural Curiosity Means Nothing if We’re Not Feeding it With Knowledge

Without sound knowledge as a starting point, children’s natural curiosity can take them nowhere – or at least, nowhere really worth going...

  • Young Pupils’ Natural Curiosity Means Nothing if We’re Not Feeding it With Knowledge

No one becomes a teacher to prepare students for examinations.

If you ask teachers why they signed on they’ll invariably wax lyrical about moulding young minds, overcoming disadvantage, passing on the torch, the love of their subject or, sometimes, the gloriously long summer holidays – but never have I heard any teacher anywhere say they go into the job to satisfy the rigours of Progress 8.

We are all, to some extent, naturally curious – we are arrested by that which is mysterious, troublesome, new and surprising.

That’s not to say we’re all equally curious about everything, however; and in the classroom too many students seem to have swapped curiosity for the dull utilitarianism of “is it in the test?”

The novelist, Anatole France thought that, “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards”. I think this is broadly true.

A teacher unable to awaken the curiosity of his or her students is a poor thing indeed. We all strive to make the content we teach as remarkable and intriguing as may be. Sometimes we fail. We buckle under the pressure of teaching to the test and end up with rooms full of apathy.

But we strive.

Find the gap

Psychologist George Loewenstein defined curiosity as the gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. In other words, in order to feel curiosity we have to know something.

We have to be surprised by something not conforming to expectations, or aware that what we currently know is not enough fully to explain the world.

One neat little trick for awakening the natural curiosity of young minds is to make students aware of a knowledge gap.

I recently read The Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen.

When discussing Saturn’s rings they begin by asking, “Have you ever wondered what the rings of Saturn are made of?” I had wondered! My knowledge of Saturn’s rings seemed suddenly and woefully inadequate; I wanted to know!

By the end of the chapter it turned out that the rings of Saturn are composed of dust. Ice covered dust. If Messrs Cox and Cohen had begun by baldly proclaiming this fact I may well not have absorbed it. But by pointing out what I didn’t know, my curiosity was piqued.

This kind of teaching is akin to digging a pit, filling it with the stuff we want children to learn, covering it with leaves and then beckoning them to follow us. Before they know it, and despite themselves, they want to satisfy their awakened curiosity.

The more we know…

In his aptly named book, Curious, Ian Leslie discusses a concept he refers to as epistemic curiosity. He suggests that such curiosity about knowledge is relatively new and is the result of mass literacy and access to information.

Children might well be naturally curious, but they have a motivational bias towards folk knowledge rather than the hard won fruits of human culture. In the absence of direction, young people’s curiosity is superficial and arrives at dead ends.

Without access to the realm of academic knowledge we are dependent on guesswork, superstition and myth. Although culturally accumulated knowledge can be more difficult to make sense of, it opens up new possibilities and ways of seeing.

Epistemic curiosity – as opposed to the idle kind – is fed by knowledge: the more we know, the more we realise we don’t know.

Our knowledge is like an island in a vast sea of ignorance. Our curiosity marks the shoreline – where knowledge and ignorance meet; as we act on that curiosity the shoreline expands and the ocean of ignorance recedes a little more.

Far from facts preventing understanding, knowledge feeds curiosity. The more we know the more capable of curiosity we become.

But can you teach curiosity? No, of course you bloody can’t. Teaching children to be curious is like teaching cats to meow: utterly redundant.

Despite the efforts of those determined to focus education on developing various ephemeral and innate qualities, curiosity is a tool at our disposal rather than suitable content to be studied.

Instead, we should encourage children’s natural curiosity by offering the richest diet on offer: knowledge of the world in all its chaotic glory.

David Didau is an independent education consultant and writer. He blogs at learningspy.co.uk.

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