Curiosity: all too easy to stifle

Curiosity, genuine intellectual curiosity, is not a habit of mind than can easily be taught in the classroom. However, a long career in the classroom has crystallized into this one inescapable conclusion: curiosity is a behavior – a life skill even –  that children must bring to the classroom to ensure their academic success. 

Teachers coax some academic performance from students with any number of motivational gimmicks. Teachers modify behavior with positive and negative feedback. Teachers lead students to the proverbial fountain of knowledge, but students will not drink sufficiently long and deep in the absence of a thirst for understanding. Teachers may sometimes inspire a cautious ascent up the psychologist’s hierarchy of needs, but should a student lack intrinsic curiosity, then the climb to that ultimate goal of self actualization will be torturous.

It must be noted that teachers can also squelch nascent curiosity. If teachers mistake meanness for rigor or bitterness for pragmatism, the effects can be devastating and long lasting. 

Absolutely everyone shares in the responsibility for the cultivation of curious minds. 

How important is curiosity? The ‘question’ is the foundation for all rational thought. It has been said that Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity – which thoroughly revolutionized the way humanity looks at the Cosmos – began with a seminal event in his fifth year and bore fruit nearly two decades laters. 

On Einstein’s fifth birthday, his father bought the young genius a compass. Albert asked what compelled the needle to point northward. His father explained that invisible lines of magnetic force emanated from the Earth and pulled the suspended magnet in the direction of the North Pole. 

Albert Einstein spent his entire life answering an endless series of follow-up questions, completely obsessed with understanding the workings of electromagnetism and gravity. Or, so the story goes…

Countless times in nearly three decades, I stood in front of a classroom full of students shouting like some modern Richard III, “A question! A question! My kingdom for a question!”

Three-quarters of a class might perform abysmally on a relatively simple assessment, but when surveyed the respondents would willingly indicate that they had not opened the book, or practiced the skill, a few would indicate inability to decode the cues despite near-daily repetition of a base vocabulary for multiple semesters. No small portion of students would exhibit handwriting that was marginally legible. A couple students would crumple the paper upon receipt. The principle symptom of “senioritis” manifested as acute affected disinterest.

These aspects of daily life in the classroom, in and of themselves, are not particularly bothersome.

What is troubling is the collective response to the teacher’s prompt: “Are there any questions about the quiz?”

Most frequently, none would be posed. Seldom would a hand be raised. 

It mattered little that this skill would likely appear again in the unit exam. It mattered even less that this was a foundational skill, scaffolding for future knowledge. No, what mattered more was that raising your hand and asking pertinent and cogent questions might lead to labeling as a “nerd” by classmates. 

“How can you not have any questions?” I would ask. A few indifferent shrugs constituted the reply. You know you are in trouble when the bell rings and it fails to awaken a student who has learned to sleep with his eyes open. 

How has it come to this? What has become of the human passion for understanding? Where is the will to learn? How do our young people arrive in the modern classroom so totally unprepared to participate in the process of improving their minds in preparation for the Age of Information. 

Some years ago, this confirmed people-watcher occupied a bench in a local mall waiting for his wife to exit a store. Not far away, a mother and her son were having lunch in the food court. No scene could have appeared more benign. 

The little boy was engaged in that “Why is the sky blue?” questioning behavior typical of toddlers. His little voice was barely audible, but the nature of the conversation could be surmised by the mother’s increasingly agitated replies. 

“I don’t know.” “Stop asking so many questions and eat your lunch.” Because they do, that’s why.” “I don’t know that, either.” “You’ll have to ask your daddy.” “You ask too many questions.” “You are starting to get on my nerves with all these questions.” “Eat your lunch or we won’t be able to go to the movie.” “That’s it, we are going home.”

Everyone has felt similarly exasperated with an ambitiously inquisitive child. Curiosity may not have killed the cat, but it had consigned one young man to perdition – judging by the wailing as his mother led him away – for a behavior that most teachers would heartily welcome in the classroom. If such conditioning were to be commonplace, it is not too difficult to imagine some future teacher calling little Jonathan’s parents to express concern about his lack of participation in class. 

Teachers may sometimes succeed at reawakening stifled curiosity during instruction, but their jobs would be infinitely easier if everyone would simply nurture the natural inquisitiveness of children instead of stifling it. To paraphrase George Sand, curiosity is a delicate flower that never blooms once trampled underfoot. 

The “Viewpoint” originally appeared in the Prince George’s Journal on April 20, 2001. It has been revised.