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Theresa Willingham

Creative Partner, Eureka Factory

TEDCRED 500+

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Celebrating and Inspiring Curiosity as a Key Component in Learning

I'm speaking here not of "education", but of learning - the process by which we obtain not just an education, but life and career skills.

We are all born curious. It’s curiosity that compels children of all ages to touch, taste, smell, and explore the world around them. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of habit, sometimes for no good reason at all, we often discourage that innate curiosity in children,just as they begin to master the skills they need to get a handle on their world.

Anyone who has seen the affected boredom of middleschoolers and highschoolers in contrast with the boundless energy and enthusiasm of elementary aged children can see the effects of thwarted curiosity, of a culture in which it simply isn't cool to be curious.

But without curiosity, there's little impetus to discover or explore. Without curiosity, apathy and disinterest creep in and the commensurate affects of an unexamined life can be culturally far-reaching - affecting political involvement, scientific, literary, artistic, economic and social achievement and development.

I believe we need to celebrate and encourage the Curiosity Driven Life at the adult level so that it trickles down to our youth. It's time for more of us to question what we hear and read and see, and to wonder and ponder out loud, and to engage in learning side-by-side with our children, modeling the curiosity we want to inspire in them.

We need a generation of people who have grown up asking questions and who are experienced in finding answers and creating solutions; people who aren’t afraid to get hurt, fall or fail, people for whom the greatest, most dangerous and most exciting innate human trait we have - curiosity – is a celebrated way of life!

What do you think?

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Closing Statement from Theresa Willingham

I enjoyed watching this conversation develop. It was interesting to see how people have experienced discouragement of curiosity in learning environments, although I'd have liked to have seen more idea generation regarding ways to inspire creater curiosity. Generally, though, everyone seemed to concur that that they felt it was vital to foster curiosity and that it is integral to learning. One of the more positive suggestions was rewarding youth for thinking outside the box. I think that's a great idea, and would encourage more out of the box thinking by others, making curiosity and innovative thinking "cool."

There was also general agreement that one of the principle considerations in fostering curiosity and creativity is whether people feel safe and secure. If food and shelter are hard to come by, it's hard to be curious about much beyond where your next meal comes from. Creating "safe zones" , of any size, can go a long way toward providing a nurturing environment to foster curiosity and commensurate learning. We'll be continuing the conversation at TED ED (http://education.ted.com/content.php) if you want to join in!

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    Mar 3 2011: Great topic Theresa, and lots of good discussion:>)
    Curiosity is fun and natural for most children, unless it is discouraged. From curiosity, so many life interests grow and evolve. So, why is it discouraged? You mention way down in the thread, what I believe to be the main reasons...fear and the need to control. Hopefully, this discussion will help remind all of us to nurture curiosity whenever possible:>)
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      Mar 3 2011: Hi again Colleen,

      Based on my experience, curiosity (among children) requires plenty of attention and guidance.

      From a single parent perspective - if I work more than 40 hours a week and still can't manage to feed my children then, I won't have much patience left to foster their curiosity. I would prioritize their physical health and safety.

      From a public, inner-city schoolteacher perspective - if I work in a small room partitioned by cement walls with three dozen children, then my priority is once again, safety. The bureaucracy often limits autonomy so much so that our democratic ideals of free speech are often impeded (i.e. scripted lessons especially within "failing" schools which plague America's urban and rural environments).

      Unfortunately, fostering curiosity appears stratified along socio-economic lines across the globe. Now the question remains, how can we change that?
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        Mar 4 2011: Hi again M.A.:>)

        I agree that nurturing curiosity requires attention and guidence. I also agree that physical health and safety are very imporant and often limited by bureaucracy or other life circumstances. Theresa states below, that she's not "sure there's a way to change that reality for the millions for whom it is the only life they've ever known". I agree with her that safety and security are important factors for fostering curiosity. I like the idea of the park or safe zones she proposes.

        Whenever we think of the big picture, we can sometimes be overwhelmed by the task. We need to think about the moment. How can we nurture ourselves and others in the moment. Even if you are in a small room partitioned by cement walls, each one of those dozen children are looking to you for encouragement and support. You have the opportunity to inject curiosity in everything you do...one step at a time:>)
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          Mar 5 2011: Today I read about GRO1000, the Scotts Miracle Grow company's effort to provide small grants to help plant 1,000 gardens and green spaces across the U.S., Canada and Europe by 2018 (www.cnbc.com/id/41853372) One here in the Tampa area, developed by local school children, has already become a showcase garden. I think this is the type of initiative that lends itself well to both creating safe spaces, and fostering the curiosity driven experiences those places can engender for children (and adults!).

          At Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, where one of my daughter's goes to school, she headed up the development of a community garden there that has taken on a life of its own, equal parts food, teaching garden and arts experience. Everytime I see it, new art work has blossomed with the plants. Children from local schools work in it with the college students. The food is used by campus dining facilities.

          I think we need thousands of spaces like these.Collaborating with libraries, schools, community gardens and parks, and encouraging communities and schools to maintain and expand these safe and nurturing zones, might be a way to use existing resources to expand the places where people of all ages can safely learn and grow. And, of course, getting traditional brick and mortar learning facilities to see the importance to learning of this type of environment in the first place, would be helpful.

          And I wholeheartedly agree with Colleen - whatever little safe place we can make for the youth with whom we work, for the people with whom we interact, we have an opportunity to model and act on our own curiosity in a way that hopefully inspires others to seek answers to their own questions, and to actively explore their own ideas, even if it's only for a little while.
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        Mar 6 2011: Gardens are a GREAT way to foster curiosity! Gardens provide the opportunity for physical laber in fresh air, working with the earth and creating something healthy for all of us:>) One of the correctional facilities in the area has a garden, which has evolved into a great learning experience and resource for many. They grow their own food, as well as supplying various non-profit organizations with food. When I co-facilitated cognitive self change sessions there, 3 of the offenders came to the sessions directly from the gardens, and it was clear that they were in a different place emotionally. They seemed to be more open to information than the other 7 in the group. Eventually, a couple of the other men in the group joined the garden crew because I think they recognized the benefits:>) As Theresa insightfull says...In each and every moment, we can model and act on our own curiosity...even if it's only for a little while...in a little space:>)
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    Feb 21 2011: My initial reaction is, "right on!" I'm a curious person and I've chosen a field that allows me to profitably indulge that curiosity. Because of curiosity I am never bored. In fact the days are never long enough for everything I want to explore. Your approach resonates with me.

    But on reflection I'm not really sure this is because my curiosity was indulged as a child. It may be because I was forced to learn things that I was not particularly curious about. You draw a lot of conclusions in your question that you don't really support. For instance, there are a lot of reasons for teenage ennui other than thwarted curiosity. Teenagers are pretty curious, just not about the subjects we would like them to be curious about. And there are other motivations other than curiosity to discover or explore: the desire for acceptance, reward, competition, etc. I would be more convinced that fostering curiosity should be a primary goal in education with some data that shows a correlation between curiosity and future success.

    As others have pointed out, curiosity is in conflict with safety to a certain extent. I agree with Gever Tulley that a allowing kids to freely explore their world is worth a reasonable amount of risk. But unfettered curiosity in a student is also in conflict with discipline and self control. There comes a time, especially as children get older, that they need to learn to control their impulses and learn things that they are not particularly curious about. Here is a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences where they studied 1000 people for 32 years and found that lack of impulse control was the best predictor of health, money, and legal troubles. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/7/2693.full

    I'm not saying I disagree with the spirit of your question. I really don't, and I think the Ken Robinson lecture is right on the money, but I would be cautious about promoting curiosity at the expense of structure and discipline in education.
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      Feb 21 2011: Love it! Thank you for providing some counterpoints! Regarding your observation that there are a lot of reasons for teenage ennui other than thwarted curiosity, and that teens may be curious about subjects we might not want them to be curious about - I agree!

      But "we" is something of a generalization as well, and that's worth exploring. Who doesn't want them to be curious about certain things - and I'm imagining sex and drugs might be some of the verbotten curiosities? Society? Parents? Probably, and for some decent reasons. But when you encourage and support curiosity at a young age, my experience and with many children beyond my own, anecdotal though it may be, suggests that kids that know how to find out information for themselves tend to make healthy choices when presented with all the options. You also have a point regarding research on curiosity, but I never said curiosity should be a primary goal in education - I said I believe it's integral to education, and knowledge acquisition.

      I also wasn't adovcating promoting curiosity at the expense of good education - although I wouldn't go so far as to say that I believe "structure and discipline" are necessary components of education. Self-discipline in learning, sure, but I think workable structure necessarily varies by individual, and there's plenty of research to back up that contention. I also don't believe that "unfettered curiosity is in conflict with discipline and self control, " necessarily. Lack of impulse control and intellectual curiosity are, to my mind, two different things.

      So -- thinking out loud here - maybe we need to define the type of healthy curiosity that leads to higher learning, invention and discovery. I suppose there are different kinds of curiosity, and the type I'm thinking of is, in fact, intellectual curiosity - curiosity about what makes the world work and our place in it.
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    Feb 20 2011: John Taylor Gatto has a beautiful little book "Dumbing us down" - in which his essential thesis is that it takes somewhat less than 200 hours programmed instruction to give children the basics of literacy and numeracy, and after that, they will learn best if left to follow whatever interests them.

    That aligns well with my own experiences, of teaching secondary school for two years, raising two children, and serving on the board of trustees of our local highschool (as treasurer then chairman).
    • Feb 21 2011: This book has radically influenced how we educate our children. We desire as parents to support them in finding their own interests and passions. Formal education is there to provide them with the basic skills they need to succeed, supporting them in their weaknesses so they do not hamper them, and providing them with opportunities and materials to learn.
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    Feb 19 2011: I may be wrong, but it seems that those of us who are curious can easily understand the benefits of that characteristic. But I think it may be hard for us to explain those benefits to others who are not curious. Raving about how much we enjoy learning about this or that might ring true with some people, but those who are not curious may just look at us like we are speaking Klingon.

    As the parent of a nineteen-month-old little boy, I can tell you I want to do everything possible to foster his curiosity. There is the instinct to intervene when I see his curiosity leading to something where he might be hurt a little bit. I've tried, though, to not intervene and to observe and stand by. In most instances, he doesn't get hurt.

    If he does bonk his head a bit or skin a knee, I have to remember that it is part of the learning process. Eliminating his sense of curiosity about the world would be a huge price to pay for the satisfaction of keeping him always from even the smallest harm.
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      Feb 20 2011: I think this is a critical issue - how do we inspire and encourage curiosity in those who are no longer curious, for any of various, sometimes perfectly understandable reasons: weariness from long hours of work, the struggle for day to day existence overcoming any other interest or urge to discover or invent? It takes energy - physical and emotional energy as well as intellectual energy - to act on our curiosity.

      I remember standing by with a certain degree of uncertainty as my children ran around with sticks and climbed higher in trees than I thought safe, and watching as my 12 year old daughter clambered up a mountainside with a sling-swaddled arm broken climbing a tree! Today they're pretty confident young adults who seem to know how to take calculated risks and whose curiosity seems as fresh today as it was when they were younger. But they're also safe and healthy and economically secure. I think this makes a significant difference in the ability to live a Curiosity Driven Life.

      There was a great piece in our local paper this morning: http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/obsession-with-college-exacts-a-toll/1152452 , discussing the Harvard "Pathways to Prosperity" project (http://bit.ly/d3NyvA) Of particular relevance to our conversation here, I think, is this comment by project authors: "Every high school graduate should find viable ways of pursuing both a career and a meaningful postsecondary degree or credential. For too many of our youth, we have treated preparing for college versus preparing for a career as mutually exclusive options."

      Among other things, the report calls for encouraging students to start identifying possible career interests in middle school. Some argue against that, but I would suggest that this might be a great way to support youth curiosity about ways to live and learn that are far more interesting than simply planning for college with a vague outcome at the end.
      • Feb 20 2011: I think the problem with lack of physical and emotional energy comes down to several basic reasons, like lack of exercise and consumerism (which is discussed in this thread:
        www.ted.com/conversations/323/can_you_live_a_happier_life_wi.html)

        If people spend too much time working overtime to buy more stuff and then shopping, maintaining and replacing accumulated things then they will be exhausted to do anything else.
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          Feb 26 2011: These are important points. When consumerism becomes an end in itself, there's impetus for discovery and learning. I've worked with way too many kids who just want a job that gives them enough money to buy stuff and be comfortable. They're not looking for meaning or purpose in life, or to "be the change we want to see", and feel that just not being a burden on society is good enough.

          Hard to argue with some of that, but on the other hand, it's sad that so many youth feel that being comfortable is a sufficient end in itself.
  • Feb 17 2011: I really want to know why parents try to take curiosity from children.
    It's Dangerous? Yeah, a little...
    But, the benefits are huge...why they don't try 'Hey son, its a hammer, try to use it...no! Not that way, this way. Great!'
    It would be nice =D
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      Feb 17 2011: So how do we make it happen? How do we make curiosity a desired social meme? The tools thing you've mentioned is a great example. How many people buy toy tools for kids, or "play kitchens", when homes are stocked with the real things. When our daughter was a toddler, she really really wanted a tool box and tools like her her Daddy. For her second or third birthday, we got her own real toolbox with real tools. She loved them! She's 21 now and still has that toolbox - at college - and knows how to use the tools in them well. All our kids helped in the kitchen with real pots and pans, and all three, including our teenage son, can cook.

      So how do we get away from "playing" house or work, and inspiring our kids to do the real thing with the real tools? How can we individually bring about a fresh focus on the Curiosity Driven Life as an end unto itself?
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        Feb 20 2011: Here's one of the dilemma's. I am the performing Arts manager at a private school in the UK and I have been there for 7 years now. Only a few years before I started there the pupils did most of the set construction, painting and lighting. Now the problem is health and safety. Because it is not technically a teaching environment I am not allowed to say to a pupil here is a hammer or a saw this is how you use them. So the result is there are now two full time adult technicians who do it all for them. They never get to have the experience of saying "I did that"
        • Feb 21 2011: This seems so sad to me. When I was in school we used large machine tools, in addition to saws and hammers in a shop class. Sure they were dangerous but we were taught how to use them safely. My cousin has described her shop class in high school as begin all online. She had to learn about hinges through a computer simulation. I would have been so confused.

          It seems to me that we need to teach kids how to use tools safely and apply some standards but allow them to build and create.

          My children love working with their dad doing construction. We have pictures of our 7 year old wielding a sledge hammer to tear down a wall and using power tools to rebuild it, during a remodeling project.

          Fear is the opposite of curiosity, fear of failure, fear of injury, fear of doing it "wrong" all lead to hampered curiosity.
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          Feb 21 2011: Nothing can stop curiosity in its tracks like the threat of litigation! Warnings on everything from the plastic wrapper on toilet paper of"suffocation" (really - how many people have suffocated on plastic toilet paper wrapping?!) to not eating the little silicon packets in vitamins to putting helmets on children on tricycles, can throw the threats of the world into weird perspective, and, as you've both pointed out, deeply hamper curiosity and learning.

          I'm not sure how schools can work around that, but I do believe we can find a way. Has anyone else had any experience with this issue and found a work-around? Anyone have any suggestions or ideas?
        • Feb 23 2011: Theresa, you are absolutely correct. I am a teacher of design and technology. I would dearly love to let my students loose on the whole range of tools and machinery that I have at my disposal, after the appropriate training obviously. But it is fear of litigation that prevents us from doing so. As a dad I can teach my own kids to use these tools safely and if and accident should happen it's unlikely that I am going to sue myself. Surely as a society we need to accept that accidents do happen and that when they do our first port of call should not be the litigator's office.

          This discussion is all about learning; we learn when we get things wrong as well as when we get them right. If we need to teach children anything, it is to not be afraid of getting it wrong. When James Dyson developed his vacuum cleaner he 'got it wrong' over a thousand time before he found what worked!
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      Feb 20 2011: It is not easy to let the kids do what they want. There is a conflict there between safety and, how do you say, household-mass-destruction and the intellectual advantages curiosity brings. Practice is a little hard, but achievable.

      My little brother is curios by nature and I don't want to change him.
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        Feb 20 2011: I hope no one ever changes your little brother's curiosity! Household mass destruction can be fairly easily averted by simplifying our households. Depending on ages, homes can be pretty effectively "child-proofed", or at the very least, perspective proofed, where young discovery has a greater value than household materialism. The best venues for intellectual curiosity are garages and yards, so stock them well!

        It's also not so much of letting kids "do what they want," as it is of guiding discovery in useful ways by providing tools, resources, and avenues of expression and exploration that are (relatively) safe and productive.

        What's your brother curious about?
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    Feb 16 2011: A fully support this notion of a "Curiosity Driven Life " and indeed its been my life in large parts. In my experience curiosity is not always welcomed and indeed is feared in some places. Government and corporations at their worst come to mind.
    The education systems as Sir Ken so elegantly points out are almost set up to expressly suppress curiosity.
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      Feb 17 2011: Curiosity is often discouraged for the reasons you mention here - basically fear, and a need to control. So what can we do to change perspectives?
      • Feb 19 2011: We can include more hands on experimentation as part of the curriculum. Kids love it and it really brings out their curiosity. For example, I showed my 5 year old daughter how to make a D.C. motor with a magnet, some copper wire, a few pins, and a piece of styrofoam as the base. She was absolutely thrilled.

        We could also add divergent thinking exercises. Kids are naturally good at this and they love it. It is also one of the cornerstones of creativity.
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          Feb 20 2011: I think hands-on, contextual learning is key to fostering an enduring curiosity. Kids who grow up used to experimenting, to testing ideas and theories, won't shy away from the process as they age. They know they'll fail sometimes, and they're okay with that.

          I also think parents can make up for a lot of the current shortcomings at public schools by being engaged with learning at home. One of the things I often see is that parents of middle and high schoolers step back, and away from their preteen and teenaged children, either out of a misperception that their children should be completely autonomous at those ages, or because their children seem to prefer adults out of their lives, or because they don't "get" adolescent behavior. That can be a wrenching time for both kids and their parents, but it doesn't have to be.

          Segueing to treating adolescents as young adults, with maturity and a certain deference can go a long way towards ensuring they remain engaged in their world in a healthy curiousity driven manner. And they really need to see the adults in their lives being curious and asking questions, and taking the time to discover answers. I don't think our kids need to see us as all-knowing and fixed in knowledge, but rather as ever intellectually evolving. Adulthood shouldn't be seen as an end in itself, as the final split between youth and non-youth, but rather as a physical maturation, freeing us to keep learning independently for as long as we live.
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      Feb 20 2011: Don't forget religion. If there is something that thwarts curiosity, that's one of it.
  • Mar 9 2011: After listening to Sir Robinson, one comment that really hit me was students are taught to be afraid of being wrong, if saying a wrong answer. This aids in students losing their creativity because children are not being allowed to think, to generate questions. Instead, they are supposed to know the right answer and say only that because that is what the school, and some teachers, are looking for, as well as other children. Students today have lost the ability to generate questions, to think during a conversation or text and ask why. Students are so used to thinking a certain way that the art of creativity is being lost, the art of asking questions and forming unique ideas are being lost. Students are scared to do this because they are supposed to have the right answer and only that. On the same lines, Sir Robinson said that we don't know what our world will look like when this generation of students retire and, we as teachers, are supposed to prepare these students for a world that we don't know; yet we are hindering their ability to be creative. I think that is crazy and backwards. We should be rewarding students for thinking outside the box because then students will flourish and go beyond their set expectations.
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      Mar 9 2011: I've always thought debates should feature a minimum of three views, rather than two. When things are presented in an either/or framework, I think a lot of creative solutions and ideas are lost. Limited points of view also suggest that there are only one or two right answers, when there are often many right answers. Helping children see this makes it easier for them to venture a guess, and for others to consider their guess in the light of many possibilities.
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      Mar 10 2011: I think, as adults, it is often difficult to sit back and let children explore and make mistakes without correcting or passing judgment. Sir Robinson's point about the fear that children develop around being wrong is a learned fear, one that adults teach to children. If we want to encourage children to ask questions, look for multiple answers, and take risks, then we need to make sure that we step back and allow them to do so.

      I have been working with a small group of kindergartners this year on science and engineering topics. Recently, I challenged them to design a car that would more the most efficiently down a slanted plane. It has been difficult to sit back and let the kindergartners explore materials and allow them to try things and make mistakes. However, by allowing them to work on their own, taking risks and discovering what works and what does not, they have learned much more than they would have if I had simply told them how to build a car. In an environment like this, students feel safe in taking risks. It has been an eye opening experience and I hope that I will be able to incorporate what I have learned about fostering curiosity into a whole class setting.
      • Jody D

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        Mar 10 2011: I think that teaching children to take risks and put their creative ideas to the test is one of the most powerful lessons a child will learn. I agree with Sir Robinson and Kiersten that children are often too afraid of giving a wrong answer. Maybe always having at least 3 viewpoints, as Theresa suggests, moves us away from a "right or wrong" framework, into a framework in which each possibility needs to be assessed on its own merit. Education researchers have suggested that gifted students need to engage in a question-posing, instead of problem-solving style of learning. Instead of figuring out answers to problems that have already been solved, these students should develop new questions. Maybe this should be standard curriculum instead of a specialized segment of education. Students who learn how to pose new questions, and can come up with some way to try to answer them, will be thinking creatively.
  • Mar 9 2011: Because curiosity is inate what we need to focus on is not killing it. Too many parents are fearful for their child's safety, which is appropriate to a point but has swung too far away from sanity. No one wants to see a child break an arm but a broken arm heals, a broken spirit doesn't. If children are afraid to try they will lose their ability to wonder. Likewise, we are afraid of failure - so we push children to "go to school, get good grades, go to college, get a great job." It simply doesn't work anymore but we are afarid of jumping off the treadmill to "success." The first thing I would recommend is to do away with grades. Assess children, or better yet teach them how to assess themselves, through portfolio work, conversations, and observations of how they work and what kind of problem solving skills do they have available. Then teach more "basic" skills, although I hate that expression because it has come to mean droning facts into a child's head. When I speak of basic skills I am refering to the ability to read and to act. Inventiveness can be fostered, for example, by asking children to build models of the pyramids or a working lock to raise and lower ships in a channel, while they are learning about these subjects. What we need to teach is how to cut, paste, saw, hammer, etc. Bringing hands-on activities into the classroom is imperative but we need to take that to a new level because now it's the teacher who introduces the idea of building pyramids. We need to make it possible for the child to think of that as one avenue of exploration, learning, and perhaps assessment. Children, like all the rest of us will apply their energies best if they have the right to decide their topics. The inate curiosity about mummies is the impetus, not the teacher's agenda. All knowledge is to be fostered and truly, except for basic skillssuch as reading and being able to manipulate numbers, the material that a child exercises his or her brain on is immaterial.
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      Mar 9 2011: My 18 year old son is about as mediocre a "traditional" student as you could find, but as warm, engaging and deeply curious and inventive as anyone you'll ever meet. He's a masterful tinkerer, self-taught programmer that adults often come to for help (he interned at a robotics company last summer when he was 17, and has been invited back again) and completely unafraid of making mistakes (which probably explains his grades).

      In the course of looking at colleges, because despite his average grades, he really loves learning and enjoys the college experience (he's dual enrolled currently, finishing out his senior high school year at the local community college) , he learned that Worchester Polytechnic in MA, which offers the types of engineering programs he's most interested in, along with a hefty scholarship based not on grades but on design ability and engineering experience, has a "Flexpath" option. It's one of the growing number of colleges that offer the option of applying for admissions on the basis of experience and expertise rather than test scores. They also have an alternative grading system, as does our local Florida New College.

      He has been delighted and amazed to find a higher education program that seems to suit his discovery based learning style to a T. I'm reassured, and hopeful that this trend continues. I want my son to be a good student - to retain information, and be able to apply it in useful and personally fulfilling ways. But I also want him to continue to enjoy learning all the days of his life, and places like WPI seem to make it possible to live a Curiosity Driven Life well into adulthood.
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    Mar 8 2011: Curiousity is one of humanity's greatest characteristics. For me it isone of its most rewarding as well.

    As a mother of five now adult children, I have often noted that curious children are frequently disapproved of or disliked. They ask inconvenient quesitons, question the status quo, ask too many questions and take up time from adults who think that have far better things to do. Teachers, with strict ciricumlums, want all of the questions to be on topic. Adults in authority have the rank to call a question impertinent. Later employers do not want things on the front line questioned just done.
    Finding a way to keep curiousity alive in every child is one of the most important things that adults can do for this world.
    • Mar 9 2011: I agree! Children do ask every question imaginable but once they enter schools, some schools more more than others, will stop them from asking those questions. At times I feel like children are robots and are going through the motions of having an education. But there are great schools and wonderful teachers who do appreciate questions and realize that asking questions emphasizes creativity. We must not forget those school and teachers because who knows what the future will bring; maybe how children learn today will drastically change.I like your last sentence and that you say adults, not just teachers, because it is also the parents and relatives jobs to keep children asking questions and forming ideas.
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      Mar 9 2011: I think one of the best ways to keep curiosity alive in children, is by nurturing it in ourselves, as adults, and especially among adults who are teachers. Kids have to see us asking questions, considering a variety of possible answers, wondering and marveling aloud about things, and actively trying to inform ourselves about the world around us. If children see continual learning as a desired end in itself among the adults in their lives, it takes on a new significance in their own lives.
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    Mar 3 2011: Awesome thread, thanks Theresa! Curiosity is too often tied to leisure (or people with leisure time). For millions of curious minds, basic survival demands the most attention. Divergent thinking is focused on the next meal or the next month's rent. My thoughts are with the troubled young man from St. Petersburg...
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      Mar 3 2011: Exactly - and I'm not even sure there's a way to change that reality for the millions for whom it is the only life they've ever known. I think it's safe to say that a sense of safety and security is integral to fostering the curiosity that leads to learning, that leads to more safety and security, and a satisfying and productive future. Maybe creating more "safe zones" in inner city areas - learning parks with gardens, playgrounds, and hands on children's areas for art, or reading or listening to music. But I think communities have to want and support these areas, to make them viable - and maybe making these places welcoming to the elderly would provide an aspect of mentoring and guidance along the lines of Sugata Mitra's Granny tutors (http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves.html), as well.
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        Mar 3 2011: I love nearly all of Mitra's ideas! I'd like to see the edifices currently home to "schools" become the "safe zones" of which you speak. The "learning revolution" will turn our understanding of education upside down. In order to value every child, we must be curious about what makes the individual tick. This can only be achieved on a much more local level than what is our present reality.

        My lived experience originated in extreme poverty. I understand and empathize with those who feel powerless and desperate to achieve an imposed "dream".
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    Feb 23 2011: Theresa, you used the word "thwarted" in your introduction, to me that is the key description. Our innate curiosity is trumped by other needs, interests and values as we get older. It's still there, but needs to have its profile increased.

    It may not be enough to say we should remain curious for the sake of perpetuating a defining human characteristic. Given how driven our society is we need to illustrate how curiosity has been a pivotal element of progress, and that's progress by any single person's definition be it social, financial, scientific or otherwise.

    Like it or not, modern society tends to value things that create value (again value by anyone's definition), so emphasizing curiosity's role in that endeavour will raise its value so we see/feel it more often.
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      Feb 24 2011: You've got some great points here, John. I'm not sure, though, that I could say my own innate curiosity has been thwarted by adult needs and interests - it's just been redirected to these new areas of life and living, and I think that can be the case for most people; an understanding that curiosity isn't the domain of youth, but a necessary - and potentially lucrative - aspect of adulthood. Like you say, curiosity has to pay off in some way.

      Last summer, Newsweek ran a piece on the "Creativity Crises" in America (http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/10/the-creativity-crisis.html) I think creativity and curiosity go hand-in-hand, and on my blog (http://terriwrites.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/culturing-creativity/) I looked at some companion research and educational efforts that try to foster creativity.

      The fact is, though, that we need curious people with both the creativity and the skills to develop everything from new technologies to solutions for economic and social problems. I think we borrow a lot in society, which can be good and certainly entertaining (witness the recent Britany Spears-Bellamy Brothers brouhaha over a phrase originally uttered by Groucho Marx!), but I think we need to be able to look at things in completely new and untried ways. And to do that, I think we need more freedom - from fear of failure or hurt, from litigation, and from cultural constraints.

      So how can we culturally raise the value of curiosity from where we stand now?
  • Feb 21 2011: I agree with you completely but unfortunately we no longer lives in a society where children are given freedom to explore or even express their concerns. These restrictions are not only enforced by parents but also by community and especially government establishments at large. Sadly to say but the world has changed ever since Sept.11 2001. Terrorism and all the associate realities are making Parents feel increasingly insecure and it is this fragmented notion that is forcing parents not to celebrate on their children's success and appreciate their curiosity no matter how small and significant it may be. I live in Pakistan and from what I can tell kids are kept indoor after schools most of the time given the present situation of the country. These kids are missing out all the small joy of life that WE, now adults, once had such as tree climbing, chasing birds etc. Yes, kids are asking questions but these days their questions are very difficult to answer..
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      Feb 21 2011: Thank you for sharing your insights. Somewhere else in this conversation we noted that curiosity is best fostered in an environment where children feel safe and secure. In much of the world, they don't, and with good reason. I think one thing we can do, wherever we live, is create safe zones for our children to explore in - places where they focus their curiosity and explore at will as far as possible within the constraints they face. It's limited, but less limited than no freedom at all.

      You obviously have access to the Internet. Is there any way for groups of families to create small safe learning communities for children that can focus on science, art, literature and so forth utilizing online resources? What are the experiences of others in similar situations?
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    Feb 21 2011: Curiosity implies interest and alas one of the most unfortunate parts of the education system is that there is little for kids to be interested in. Hand a kid mathematical equations and they won't care because it has no meaning in life to them. I think the main way to encourage curiosity is to create reasons to get curious. And in that the best way to create curiosity and interest is to make it relatable. Whether that is through connecting to video game or movie characters, or things that happen in children's lives on a regular basis.

    I know that curiosity is integral to my life and it helps me find my way all the time. But many kids have a life that is decided for them, between being in school, and chores, homework and other responsibilities. The key to develop interest and curiosity is to make the subject relatable. For example. If the kid loves the movie Toy Story, then relate the characters and events to the lessons, perhaps give the kids the problem, that Buzz needs to get back to Andy's room from Cid's house. He has a piece of paper, can he get from one window to the other? What would he have to do to accomplish this? The desire to see the character succeed is enough to drive curiosity, and while your at it it's encouraging empathy at the same time.
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    Mar 12 2011: Yesterday, our high school robotics team hosted an outreach table at the local Renaissance Festival "School Day," figuring it would be a good opportunity to connect with local students and teachers on STEM learning opportunities. We set our table up with a display of simple machines, some Renaissance inventions info, and a variety of small robots. The place was swamped as busloads of children poured into the festival grounds. Unfortunately, most of the teachers and chaperones already had a game plan for what they wanted the kids to see and even though a lot of kids made a beeline for our table and started asking questions, many (probably most) were pulled away to "stay on schedule" or to go see something else the teacher thought would be more educational for them, apparently. Only a few students were allowed to explore at will, and only a handful of teachers followed their students' leads and shared in their curiosity.

    I'm not suggesting everyone who came through the gate should have been interested in STEM stuff; but I know that a lot of kids were discouraged from exploring what we had on display because there were some preconceived ideas of what the kids should get out of the RenFest experience, and we weren't on the list of shows or displays. I wondered how many other things kids might have been interested in that they were pulled away from because it wasn't part of the teachers' plans. Predictably, the very youngest children were the ones usually allowed to linger and look at things, and showed the most unbridled curiosity and interest. And for the most part, the middle schoolers were herded by chaperones and the high schoolers sauntered in small unsupervised and disinterested packs. It was an interesting opportunity to observe the various stages of curiosity (or lack thereof) played out in a large scale.
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    Mar 8 2011: Stephen Collins offers an interesting look at the modern "Knowledge Worker", which embraces a wide range of career fields, at http://leanthinkers.blogspot.com/2008/09/knowledger-worker-20.html , and looks at the difference between "bursty" workers and "busy" workers. The description of "bursty" workers suggests that the engaged and curious worker is a valuable commodity, and encourages companies to foster collaboration and exploration among modern Knowledge 2.0 workers. I find the presentation interesting, because the descriptions of the "bursty" worker sound much like those of a curious and energetic child. In this light, encouraging and supportiing lifelong curiosity helps hone much needed career skills that have long term benefits to companies and our communities.
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    Mar 2 2011: TEDs just put out word about TED-ED Braintrust - http://education.ted.com/ - a new online initiative led by "visionary educators, students, organizations, filmmakers & other creative professionals." Surely inspiring and encouraging curiosity has a role in that effort, especially by creative professionals! I think student led learning builds on natural curiosity in a sustainable and enduring way. How do you envision reinvigorating education with a curiosity factor?
  • Feb 25 2011: I am 32, I have never lost the curiosity I had as a child and I am willing to fail which is more than a majority of the children I work with. Our education system has striped children's ability to deal with failure which is probably why we see so many distraught people failing their auditions on reality TV shows.

    If you are in need of a curiosity boost, try the following which I encouraged my 8 year old sister to do in IKEA today. Go to the bedroom department and hide in a wardrobe near to where people are looking. When someone opens the door say in a loud, confident voice "i'm sorry, Narnia is closed today". When you get bored of doing that, hide in a different wardrobe and when people are nearby, jump out and exclaim "i'm back, i'm back... but i've been gone for hours..."

    Enjoy.
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      Feb 26 2011: That's playfulness, which I believe is an important component of curiosity. But I'm wondering about habits and activities that can fuel a passion for discovery and invention, fostering the type of mind that can go to an Ikea and wonder about a better way of making a wardrobe, or of even creating a Narnia style adventure wardrobe, that functions as private office or something!

      In the old film, Mr. Mom, (at least I think that was the film) there's a scene where a character goes around with a portable tape recorder into which he enthusiastically pours all the various ideas that come to him throughout the day: "Idea: Feed mayonnaise to tuna!" when it occurs to him that mayonnaise fed tuna would be more efficient to can. Silly, yes, but also a fun tribute to being curiosity driven, and idea inspired.

      We gave our son an Inventor's notebook when he was younger, and he would record all sorts of ideas for machines that occurred to him. Today, he's more likely to sketch something up in a CAD program, but it's the same idea. For the last year or so, he's been working on a "telepresence" robot idea, and even as he tinkered and researched and learned that others, in the same period of time, have professionally refined the idea to a high degree, he hasn't been discouraged, but continues to rise to the challenge of coming up with something new. "Mine will cost under $1K" or will be more user friendly, or completely open source.

      I think one thing we can do is make sure kids have lots of tools, in addition to strong encouragement and support in using them. Tools can range from notebook and pen, to software, and books, and access to mentors and opportunities for apprenticeships, so they can build, learn and explore the things they're interested in, hands on and in context.
  • Feb 24 2011: I just finished typing up a few posts that said the same thing. I agree 100%. :-)
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      Feb 24 2011: A sad event occurred this week, in St. Petersburg, FL, not far from where I live. A 16 year old boy killed a police officer who was stopping him on a routine investigation of a prowler. The officer was armed only with a notebook, and when he tried to stop the youth, the young man shot him several times at close range, and then fled.

      By most accounts, the boy was not "bad" - He was polite at home and in school, he has a relatively close family, shelter, food security, people who care about him. He does however, live in the "projects" - lower income housing -- where he tended to hang with unsavory characters, and was bored, listless and disinterested in school, got poor grades and often didn't attend school. He did like sports and seemed to excel in them. Somehow, he obtained $140 with which to purchase a gun on the streets, though.

      Clearly, he was not curious about anything he was taught at school, despite school personnel's efforts to reach out to him. Might there have been some way to build on the boy's innate curiosity and interest in sports, and in some way build academic and intellectual knowledge around that? There's no way to know much about his home life, but other than insisting he keep trying at school, did anyone at home model curiosity and interest in life in general?

      How do we help bring the energy and fuel of life that curiosity can be to more young people, so that learning becomes more desirable than hanging out with drug dealers and convicts? Why is that more exciting than building and creating, for so many youth? I suspect one answer may be that most schools aren't exciting places to build and create, just frustrating and curiosity dulling for many young people.
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    Feb 21 2011: Curiosity implies interest and alas one of the most unfortunate parts of the education system is that there is little for kids to be interested in. Hand a kid mathematical equations and they won't care because it has no meaning in life to them. I think the main way to encourage curiosity is to create reasons to get curious. And in that the best way to create curiosity and interest is to make it relatable. Whether that is through connecting to video game or movie characters, or things that happen in children's lives on a regular basis.

    I know that curiosity is integral to my life and it helps me find my way all the time. But many kids have a life that is decided for them, between being in school, and chores, homework and other responsibilities. The key to develop interest and curiosity is to make the subject relatable. For example. If the kid loves the movie Toy Story, then relate the characters and events to the lessons, perhaps give the kids the problem, that Buzz needs to get back to Andy's room from Cid's house. He has a piece of paper, can he get from one window to the other? What would he have to do to accomplish this? The desire to see the character succeed is enough to drive curiosity, and while your at it it's encouraging empathy at the same time.
  • Feb 21 2011: According to the Nation's Report Card 68% of 8th graders read below grade level. I believe poor reading skills are key to a the lack of curiosity in our schools. Children have been taught the very complex language of English is a chaotic fashion which leaves more exceptions than answers. When students year after year fail to learn to read, not only do they not have foundational academic skill to all education, reading, they are discouraged and broken hearted.

    In addition it is possible to teach English in such a manner as to train students from the earliest grades to ask questions, look for and discover patterns, and engage in the process of discovering the rules and phonograms that describe 98% of English words. When students are taught in an engaging fashion, where they are respected as learners, they will become more curious about other subjects. They will learn that they contribute to learning and are not passive vessels to be filled.

    I believe the first step though is to lift them up in the primary area they struggle - basic literacy. Unfortunately as a nation, our general population does not know how English works. Parents and educators rarely have answers to their students questions, such as "why is the A long in LANE but not in HAVE?" This material though is widely known in remedial reading centers around the country. I call it The Logic of English. And it is has been shown through countless studies to be successful in teaching 100% of children how to read.

    When our student population becomes literate we will begin to address creativity in deeper ways. Students will not be sitting there with deeply discouraged hearts and a world of books will be open to them. Teacher's will be able to focus on inspiring students in their subject areas and not be so hampered by the low level of reading and writing skills.

    Denise Eide
    www.logicofenglish.com
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      Feb 21 2011: My son was ten before he learned to read, and not from any lack of trying - although from a certain lack of interest. Rather than make all his learning center around trying to learn to read, though, we simply proceeded with his education in other areas and continued to read aloud to him and to model interest and excitement in reading and books.

      He finally "got it" when he decided he wanted to create a video game and needed to learn how to write programs in Visual Basic. We found a simple "Visual Basic for Kids" book, and he slowly worked his way through it - and by the time he figured out how to write his video game, he was also reading. Reading was suddently relevant to him - there was a reason for it.

      He's 18 now, an avid reader, and dual enrolled at a local college as he finished out his senior year of high school. If we had focused on teaching him to read, he'd have hated it and I doubt would have mastered it as completely as he finally did. You don't need to know how English works to value and enjoy reading. I'm a writer, and I can attest to the fact that nothing kills a love of language than having it deconstructed to the point of meaninglessness.

      We come to learn and enjoy language like we come to love music: By hearing it and running it over our tongues, and feeling its lyric wonder. For children, reading has to mean something, bring them something, elevate them in some way. Reading was not foundational to my son's learning, although I completely agree that it's key to continued learning. But his love of science and literature proceeded unfettered until his reading skills caught up later.

      A great book, "Reading without Nonsense" by Frank Smith, sheds some helpful light on our views of reading, and what I believe to be a misplaced emphasis on having all children read by a certain age. I think a lot of kids are lost in school when they don't read when their peers do - when what they really need is time, and a reason to read.
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    Feb 20 2011: As someone who did much of his education in India before moving to the US some 23 years ago, I daresay that the reason why India and China may take a long time to truly dominate the world is because of the fact that their education systems are not based on what you are saying--celebrating and inspiring curiousity as a key pillar of learning.
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      Feb 21 2011: Tongue-in-cheek right? ;-) China tops the education achievement list in the 2009 OECD report: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/54/12/46643496.pdf - But we're circling back to "education" as opposed to "learning" and knowledge. I think there's a difference. One can be educated, but uninventive; degreed but socially inactive.

      I think curiosity is key to the things we need most in society - an engaged and interested populace who drive invention, social action and discovery. We don't need degrees for that - we just need to be able to question and explore and be interested enough in the world around us to try to find answers to the things we don't understand or want to improve or invent.
  • Feb 17 2011: I had teachers in High School who emphazied 3 things; curiosity, logic and critical reading. These, more than anything else have made me a life long student. This mind set bring great fufullment and joy.
    The most disturbing mind set I see today is great numbers of people who practice 'magical thinking' and superstitious mysticism. They are completely unable to seperate fact from opinion and thus unable to make logical decisions.
    Many schools do fear curiosity. It can 'rock the boat'.
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    Feb 16 2011: I couldn’t agree more with you. We need to encourage curiosity and celebrate it as a key component in Life. Other aspects I’d like to mention are: play, creativity and humor.

    Inquiring on the implications of play on creativity, and by comparing regional differences, the Japanese art director Seijo Kawaguchi observed a stronger element of play and curiosity in the Japanese society, for example, that in Western countries and this, he says, emerges in Japanese advertising and in every aspect of daily life.

    Other key ingredients –contributing to creativity and curiosity as well- that I’ve learnt from Tom Wujec are: novelty, value creation and passion -the desire to do something for pleasure rather than for a prize or some sort of compensation.

    I remember a talk at Google by Jen Fitzpatrick (currently in charge of Google's UX team) who also mentioned humor as a key ingredient, as a communication tool.

    FITZPATRICK, Jen. The Science and Art of User Experience at Google, 07/06/2006.
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6459171443654125383#
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      Feb 17 2011: I also enjoy this one by David Carson on humor and design: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/david_carson_on_design.html I love your observations on play and creativity, and agree that we need people driven more by a sense of curiosity, fun and exploration -out of desire and pleasure to achieve and accomplish and invent - than for financial reward. That's why I think compensating kids monetarily for their grades is deeply misguided. They're not learning for the joy of gaining knowledge, but for the paycheck. Others might say that's good enough and sets the right tone for a workforce future. But I think it sets the bar too low. What if the rewards for youth achievements were patents, books in print, artwork on public display?