Curiosity and Learning

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it breathes life into every learner. Think of anything you have ever wanted to learn, anything after which you sought more information. Remember times when you thought or said, “isn’t that interesting; I wonder what that is.” “Or I wonder how that works.” Many times, after having your interest piqued, or wondering, you sought out answers. This is perhaps the greatest attribute of the internet. Anything we can encounter in our daily lives and wonder about is answered or explained somewhere on the internet. Whether it’s the ball score from yesterday, the name of the tree I saw on a walk in the woods, or a claim made from someone in the news that seems too promising to be true, or too outlandish. Learning at its best can be broken down into two essential components: curiosity, and opportunity.

Curiosity is the source of motivation to find answers and solutions. It is the catalyst that sets behaviors and choices in motion that lead to effective learning and long-term benefit. The benefit is long lasting, because we remember answers to questions we originate and for which we seek out answers long after we remember knowledge simply transmitted to us that is the product of someone else’s curiosity. Learning gained through our own curiosity is collected and shaped into ideas and products that are innovative and of high value to others. Curiosity can be understood as the raw materials from which learning is gained, collected, organized, and assembled into something of worth. It can be likened to the media an artist collects and from which he selects in the creative process of making a work of art. The primary colors are there; they are the basic knowledge of the learner.

The innovation and most creative work is born out of how skillfully the artist can mix those primaries to create infinite varieties of colors and subtleties, until something uniquely theirs and universally (or nearly so) edifying is made. And there’s the rub. Education at its best effectively teaches the “primaries,” the basic concepts, skills, and knowledge as raw material, not the the ends themselves, and then teaches learners to satisfy their own curiosities by manipulating the primaries in an individual way, driven by that curiosity. That satisfying of personal curiosity is made possible by being well schooled in how to use primaries to find the answers to questions generated out of curiosity, and being given ample time to gain experience doing so. That’s the opportunity part.

Education fails when learners are prescribed someone else’s curiosity, and then required to answer questions stemming from that, or even worse, when learners are given basic concepts, skills, and knowledge, tested on those, and then ushered into a new unit of study without ever being given the opportunity to answer their own questions with it. Having said that, it must be pointed out that going too far with self-directed education is also not good. Leaving students entirely on their own to choose what and even if they will learn anything does not produce good results, as we witnessed in the many schools that were modeled after A.S. Neil’s Summerhill, in which students were to have benefitted from being given absolute freedom, unencumbered by “adult coercion.” At that time, students chose not to learn over learning much of the time, and educational results were, by objective measures, unsuccessful.

Students do need structure. They do need to be pointed in a definite direction, and helped along the way, but that way should be largely designed by each individual learner’s curiosity, or small a group of learners with coinciding interests and curiosities. So, for example, students are taught how to perform mathematical operations, but they are allowed to research and pursue answers to their own questions. In its simplest form, students write their own “word problems” based on their interests and curiosities, and then work through solving those problems. That is the essence of using their own curiosity rather than someone else’s.

Education has often been blamed for beating down creativity with too much of a conformist approach. When everyone has to do things according to a teacher’s specifications, creativity is kept at bay, and eventually students are discouraged from being very creative at all. Because creativity thrives on curiosity, the same can be said of the latter. But it is not just rigid course requirements that are to blame. Students are steered away from following their curiosity whenever they are seduced by conforming to peer pressure. People are easily convinced to follow the crowd, rather than stand out at different.

Because peers are such a strong influence on the emotional and psychological development of young people, and the remains of that development remain throughout life, breaking away to pursue curiosities takes a degree of courage and confidence many lack. If the word “curiosity” is not only a noun meaning “a strong desire to know or learn something,” but also meaning “a strange or unusual object or fact” (Oxford Languages). From this second definition, we describe something curious as odd, strange, or peculiar. When peers transform a curious learner into a curiosity, there is little incentive to remain one. So ultimately, improving learning depends on making it “safe” for students to be different by pursuing their own curiosity; by creating a learning environment in which the norm is to feature and foster individual curiosities.

“In music, curiosity most often enters in through what one hears in a musical work, or what one learns about a musician who is attached to a musical work, as a composer or performer. For example, my seventh grader classes were not the least bit interested in listening to Beethoven. As soon as they heard the first sounds of a symphony orchestra, they were done with it. Until I mentioned that Beethoven wrote all of that music without ever being able to hear it due to his deafness. Immediately, Beethoven’s music became of great interest, and remained so. At other times, I have begun to play avant guard music for a class, and immediately gotten their attention, because it is so different. This is especially true of younger classes, where the children are still highly curious and largely unaffected by peer pressure.

Students are also willing to follow their curiosity if they are able to do so skillfully. “What unusual sounds can you discover with this instrument?” “How many different ways can you come up with to sing this line of text?” “How would this song have sounded different if you had written it?” “This song seems a little too difficult for you right now. What changes can you make to it that would make it easier for you?” “There were three instruments being played on the same melody in that section you are wondering about.” You already recognized the trumpet as one of them. What are the others?” What would it sound like if the trumpet were replaced with an oboe?” Using either student musicians, or sampled orchestral instruments on a computer, answers to questions like these can be pursued. The teacher’s job is to introduce something that will arouse curiosity, and then to guide students in generating questions and answers that arise out of that curiosity. Even better, have students introduce something that will arouse the class’ curiosity, and work off of that.

There is nothing more precious in learning, and indeed in the advancement of humankind, than curiosity. Without it, learning becomes irrelevant, stale, and of limited use. The greatest thinkers, inventors, and leaders have unleashed it with great results, and without it, few have attained meaningful greatness. Education will succeed or fail depending on how educators and the societies in which they work value curiosity. Arts educators are in an excellent position to free students’ curiosity from the many constraints that hold it down. Arts educators must exert influence on educational stakeholders to value curiosity, and lead the way showing them how it is done.

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