Some Rambling Thoughts on Curiosity and Creativity

Inspire Curiosity

Reflecting on last weekend at EduCon, one of the highlights of the event every year is the Friday night panel discussion. The organizers bring together four smart, interesting people and get them talking about their work in the context of the conference theme. 

This year’s theme was curiosity and the discussion produced many great ideas around that simple word that are worth thinking about. But at one point the moderator raised one question that’s been stuck in my head: “What is the difference between curiosity and creativity, or is there a difference?”

In education reform discussions, we seem to talk a lot about creativity but not so much about curiosity. We say we want students to be creative, do we also want them to be curious? Or do we view the two concepts as interchangeable?

No one on the panel had the definitive answer about the difference, and I’m pretty sure I don’t either. But one idea came to mind on the drive back from Philly.

Curiosity leads to information; creativity leads to knowledge (understanding?).

People who are curious about something, are driven to learn more about it. But that learning doesn’t automatically lead to any kind of application of the information. Some level of creativity, and additional work, is required to make that happen.

In fact, can creativity even exist without curiosity? Can someone be called “creative” without being curious as well?

Anyway, enough rambling for now. Maybe I’ll have a more coherent post on the topic after reading back through my notes (aka Twitter feed).

But one last thing: something one of the panelists said made me recall a favorite quotes related to curiosity in science.

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…'” – attributed to Isaac Asimov (not confirmed)

The picture is from my trip to EduCon 2015 and shows some relevant banners hanging on the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Don’t Worry, Bill Will Be Fine

In their current issue, Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on technology and design, presents an interview with Bill Gates, in which he “offers his cure for what ails the education system”.

Although the intro section includes a little criticism, it’s pretty clear from the start the writer has no intention of asking anything that might be considered push-back. The editors even include a sidebar with a list of Bill’s “favorite edtech startups”, all of which are more about the technology and data management than they are about learning.

The whole interview isn’t very long and offers none of those “cures” mentioned in the subhead. But Gates’ answers to two questions stood out as especially shallow.

At the top, the writer asks him what he sees as the “ultimate challenge in education”. Gates replies that we must “get more out of $600 billion a year”, the amount he says the US spends on education. Spoken like a true billionaire money manager.

Then towards the end of the article comes this excellent question.

You’ve said that when you were in high school, you followed your own interests, taking on independent study, working on computer programming day and night. Is there room for that kind of student-driven learning in a highly rigorous, metrics-based environment?

Gates’ response is both disingenuous and clueless.

People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. For the self-motivated student, these are the golden days. I wish I was growing up now. I envy my son. If he and I are talking about something that we don’t understand, we just watch videos and click on articles, and that feeds our discussion. Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids.

As so many education “experts” do, Gates’ is extrapolating his personal experience to every student in the country. But unlike him, I don’t believe the highly curious kids are a small percentage of the whole. There are many more than he can see who are very self-motivated, just not by the narrow goals dictated by a standardized test-driven system.

Let’s face it, we don’t give our students many reasons or resources to express their curiosity and self-motivation during the time they spend with us in the formal process we know as school. Maybe fixing that would be a better way to spend Bill’s money.