Curiosity: Not Just for Kids

One of my continuing curiosity factors is the role such curiosity plays in our lives as time marches on. Some months ago I wrote a column aimed primarily at the need for unbridled curiosity in youngsters as they are exposed to the educational experience. I opined that such curiosity seems to wane as youngsters move up the educational ladder so that by the time they are in high school, there may not be much curiosity left.

I am pleased to report that a number of readers checked in with me on the subject by email. Their universal agreement that we need to do a better job of encouraging curiosity in our students let me know I had hit a vein. In fact, I learned that a group of private school educators in the Dallas-Fort Worth area used the column as a topic for discussion with their teaching staffs and parents as well.

Their interest in the curiosity factor nudged me to dig deeper in the curiosity well to explore the causal relationship between that “need to know” attitude and the “don’t care” attitude. Then I hit curiosity pay dirt!

“Is it heredity or environment ?” The age old question rears its head. Is curiosity innate or can it be taught? If it is not nurtured, does the curiosity factor fade away?
Is it a sign of intelligence..creativity? The pay dirt kicked up more questions than answers.

Those questions gave way to a couple of additional queries:
In regard to education, what type of teachers and or parents can cause that childhood curiosity to continue through middle and upper school?

What role does curiosity play in success or failure in adult life?

It seems to me that the teacher is a key component in the care and feeding of the curiosity factor in students as they progress from level to level. If the teacher is himself/herself an energetic and curious person, it makes sense that students will be more likely to infuse curiosity in not only school-related activites but also in real life.

However, I can just hear school superintendents and those responsible for hiring instructional staff saying “…But how can we measure this ‘curiosity factor’ or how can we tell if a prospective teacher has that factor when we are interviewing them?” And I am not sure I have the answer except to say that intuition and observation may be the critical tools for interviewers.

In the same way we rely on our intuition and experience to spot the talented or gifted student, we can focus on evaluating instructional staff. And, yes, we may be fooled on occasion by the individual who is adept at the interview process….the one who knows how to play the game. But if we as experienced educators are vigilant in finding the teacher with the natural, built-in curiosity about life, surely we can select such teachers for our schools.

Sadly, one of the basic drawbacks to the selection and retention of outstanding teachers for our students is the inability to dismiss or reassign the teacher who is not fulfilling his or her assignment adequately. In order to provide teachers with job security, our system has bent over backwards to retain teachers who really should be in another line of work. Any school administrator will tell you how difficult it is to discharge a teacher–especially an experienced one. Here is where community expectations for teaching performance need to be clear. Granted, the community of private school education may have more ability to handle the problem of nonperforming teachers than the public school community. But if the goal is good teachers to teach and energize students, what are we to do?

The second question about the role of curiosity in our adult lives is also difficult to quantify. Look around your work life and home life. Do you have friends who are interested in diverse or unusual topics? Friends who are fun? Friends who can solve problems creatively? Friends who are always seeking not just the “why” about things but also the “why NOT?”

Oddly enough, the inquisitive or curious adult is not always rewarded for that curiosity. In fact, sometimes they are even punished for questioning long-held standards or authority. And that very fact flies in the face of what we say we value in the educational process. Except in a few areas in industry or service, curiosity is not the number one quality sought in an adult worker.

Is there ever any question that Bill Gates is a curious person? And what would we have done without his remarkable curiosity?
And athletes who are curious as to how far they can push their bodies to achieve?
Researchers seeking the cure for diseases like AIDS or cancer? Architects who experiment with amazing designs for buildings—and ways to keep those buildings standing! Historians who have an endless thirst for uncovering our history. Automobile designers and engineers who seek the plan to make a car run better, faster, longer–as well as to make it a thing of beauty.

As we age, is it taken for granted that we will slow down–mentally as well as physically? Are we expected to become disinterested bystanders who merely hear about life and news from radio or television and not from first hand experience? Does becoming a “senior citizen” mean that we tamp down those flames of curiosity from our youth or our middle age? I certainly hope not!

Just think how life experience can continue to feed our intellectual curiosity. And whether you are a young teacher of wiggly grade schoolers or a grandparent of young adults, your own curiosity about life and learning may provide the incentive for those around you to seek answers to difficult questions, to figure out why something isn’t working as it should or to evaluate options for life’s critical decisions.

How lucky we would be if from one end of the lifeline to the other there would always be someone in our lives to generate enthusiasm, energy and curiosity!

Carolyn Gilbert