TED Conversations

Theresa Willingham

Creative Partner, Eureka Factory


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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?


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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  • 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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