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Discouraging Curiosity

Recently a speaker made a statement that I had heard many times before (or variations thereof), but for some reason this time it struck me as rather strange.

She said “We need to do more to encourage the curiosity and investigative spirit of our students.”, a declaration in reference to teaching elementary-age kids.

Having never taught students below the middle school/junior high level, I really don’t know, but at what age do kids stop being curious? When do they stop investigating things that catch their interest? I mean, isn’t this how we, all learned a great deal about our world in the first place?

The process starts by getting a question in our mind (maybe not in the Jeopardy form of a question but still questioning) and then doing what it takes to find an answer.  “What happens if I stick this fork in that wall socket?” may not be the smartest inquiry anyone created but some of us discovered electricity that way. As well as one more thing to never repeat.

Einstein is supposed to have said “It’s a miracle that curiosity survives a formal education.”, and whether he did or not1, I think the premise is an unfortunately accurate one. As we enter into the spring testing season around here (and in most American schools) and students spend large chunks of time on decidedly non-curious activities, I wonder if real curiosity in most kids only exists outside of the time they spend in classrooms.

That initial statement about curiosity also led me back to a good post from Presentation Zen2 in which Garr Reynolds starts with this observation on the topic.

The courage to make mistakes is related in some measure to curiosity, exploration, and the ability to speak honestly about a topic and about ourselves. For it is fear of mistakes, of being wrong, and the possibility of ridicule that stops us from showing our natural curiosity. The openness to show your natural curiosity in front of others requires one to be vulnerable.

I’m not sure there’s a significant point to this rant (or any point at all for that matter), just a collection of random thoughts on a trait that should be common to most human beings.

However, we probably would not have nearly as many education reform types talking about “encouraging curiosity”, “teaching innovation”, “fostering creativity”, and the rest if we didn’t work so hard to wring those naturally occurring tendencies out of our kids early in their educational life.

1 Half the pithy sayings attributed to major historical figures (Mark Twain is another) are probably made up or corrupted.

2 Thanks to Delicious, one part of my cloud-based brain extension. By the way, the whole column is worth a little of your time.


Getting The Picture


Being Annoyingly Skeptical is Required


  1. Karen

    By 3rd/4th grade students are looking for the correct answer….not the logical one….and by 6th grade that innate curiosity only appears on rare occasions…..when it shows up–it’s fabulous but, as a music teacher, I watched it fade with each passing year.

  2. My first graders haven’t lost it, but the 4th and 5th graders I used to teach had. Those older kids also frequently asked, “Is this for a grade?” Something 1st graders never do. I think that, even before the testing mania, may be a factor.

    I’ve had several conversations with teachers at different levels and at different schools recently about student apathy. I haven’t noticed it but many others seem to have done so. I wonder if our constant assessing, not just the state mandated tests but the practice tests and the common assessments for our PLCs and the classroom tests are doing this to them. Why care at all about school if it is ALL about a test?

  3. Dave Webb

    In my opinion it’s not the testing that is discouraging kids from taking risks associated with curiosity, it is merely the attitudes and personalities of grade school teachers that get imprinted on the kids. Assessment is a necessary evil, but in and of itself it is not even remotely connected (cognitively) to the concept of curiosity.

    Kids learn a lot by example (here I mean that they observe others and behave in similar fashion), and when in grade school they spend most of their learning time in the classroom. If their role model lacks imagination and curiosity, the result is much more likely to be a child that, outwardly, also lacks imagination and curiosity (there are going to be exceptions of course to this general influence). But place kids in a vibrant, imaginative, curiosity-driven environment, and you will see a lot more kids engaging in curiosity-driven activities.

    There are lots of good teachers out there. There are also lots of well-meaning teachers out there. And there are lots of poor teachers out there. What we need are fewer of the last two types, and more of the first. A good teacher realizes that they teach and lead by example. I teach in a.university environment where you might think that these issues are much less of a factor. That may have been true a few decades ago, but today students even at this level seem to lack an innate curiosity regarding the world around them. Delayed maturity may be partly to blame. This has been fostered by society though, and is not the fault of the kids; it is something we either need to correct (preferably), or adapt to.

    I’m not convinced that the major (or sole) problem with education today lies in the curriculum or in delivery methods, rather, it seems to me that it is the combination of delayed maturity and a lack of inspiration from teachers who would rather blame the curriculum, or the delivery methods, or some other pedagogical red herring.

    Just an opinion.

  4. Dave

    Structured assessment is undoubtedly a huge factor in discouraging curiosity, because it requires students to come up with a specific, intended answer to a narrowly structured question.

    Take a problem like “You have $5 and Sally asks you for $1, how much do you have left?” The test answer is $4. The creative answer is, of course, $5. Or maybe the creative answer is $0, because you could tell that Sally needed more than that and you gave her the whole $5, or you didn’t have change so she just said she’d owe you. Or maybe you remember that you have some change in the bottom of your bag, but then Sally remembers she does, too, and you both laugh and say “nevermind, then”.

    Math makes for easy examples, but how many times has a literature teacher told a student that the teacher’s preferred interpretation of a work is the interpretation that’s really true and dismissed the student’s interpretation? How many students asked if Pluto really qualified as a planet and were told that, for the test, Pluto will be considered a planet, because bubblesheets don’t allow for students to explain their reasoning that Pluto shouldn’t be a planet?

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