Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Standard Schools Make Our Children Uncurious

We are born curious. It's the urge to connect with the world, to understand it, to be a part of it, that drives us to nurse, to talk, to walk. 

Studies show that a typical four-year-old asks 200-300 questions per day. The average adult asks 25-30. Is this because, as wise adults we have all the answers? Obviously not. There are as many unanswered questions today as there have ever been. Indeed, anyone who has made a study of anything knows that every answer begets a multitude of new questions, a phenomenon made manifestly clear to any adult who has engaged with a young child who asks "Why?" to every answer you supply. It's a question game that always leads us into the unknown, where the only answer possible is "I don't know."

When we're at our best as educators and parents we patiently answer every question to the best of our ability, then, when we get to the unanswerable, we turn the question around, "What do you think?" or perhaps, we reply with a bouquet of answers, "Some people think X. Some people think Y . . ." Of course, many adults are too busy or distracted to fully engage, or perhaps they simply already see where this is going, so instead of answering every "Why?" they shut the whole thing down to save themselves . . . What? The irritation or embarrassment of not knowing?

"I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions," writes astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan, "Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world's birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: 'What did you expect the Moon to be, square?' Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it, an another child has been lost to science."

In my conversation with Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years on Teacher Tom's Podcast, she brings up this quote in relation to the role standard schooling plays in making our children uncurious. "A system that determines what you will learn kills curiosity."

Teachers everywhere complain that kids these days simply aren't motivated, that they are hard to reach, entitled, and only interested in their phones. You rarely hear this from preschool teachers, and never from those of us who work in play-centric environments. We call it play, but it can also be seen as embodied curiosity, and curiosity works on the basis of self-selected questions, questions of relevance to the child doing the asking. Whereas standard schools operate on the basis of answers to questions that the child is not asking, on the ability to repeat those answers, often over and over, on tests, with the ultimate goal of converting those answers into grades. The children soon learn that the judgement of adults is the main point of knowing anything as far as school is concerned. Curiosity has nothing to do with it.

The pity, the tragedy, is that in this process of schooling, we crush, or at least push aside, curiosity which is the capacity humans have evolved to educate ourselves. What arrogance, what ignorance to think we can one-up Mother Nature. As Denisha (and Carl Sagan) point out, it's the questions, not the answers, that are the real drivers of learning, at least if we are to do it at full capacity. When we don't acknowledge this, we don't just lose children to science, but to wonder. It's wonder that makes us lifelong learners, not answers, which are always just stepping stones along the way to more questions, more wonder.

It's curiosity that makes us truly self-motivated, although I'll concede that in any standard school classroom there always are a few kids who learn to be "self-motivated" by the imperative to please their teachers and parents, which is, at the end of the day the unspoken goal of standard schools: to curry favor with the powerful, a fundamentally anti-democratic idea, but one that will at least serve them in their pursuit of a life within a corporate or bureaucratic hierarchy.

And there are many who find that well and good, who view schooling as, essentially, vocational training. But as Dr. Jones sees it, if we are going to ever have a society that serves all of us, that lives up to its democratic ideals, we need eduction that liberates all of us to become our best, most alive selves. And to do that we must rely not on pat answers, but rather on curiosity, our ability to pursue answers to our own questions.

In her book Wanderlust, essayist Rebecca Solnit writes, "Children begin to walk to chase desires no one will fulfill for them: the desire for that which is out of reach, for freedom, for independence from the secure confines of the maternal Eden. And so walking begins as delayed falling, and the fall meets with the Fall." This is, it seems, what frightens so many of us about curiosity and why we must systematically, over decades, teach our children to stop asking so many questions. Sagan writes, "I can't for the life of me understand. What is wrong with admitting that we don't know something?" and that is certainly a part of it. But I think deeper still is this idea of curiosity, when left to flourish, leading inevitably to liberation and for those interested in maintaining the status quo, that's a frightening thing.

We are born not giving a damn about the status quo. We have questions, we have desires, and our birthright of curiosity compels us to wonder. So we ask "Why?" and "Why?" and "Why?" again. And each answer, inevitably, upsets the status quo; each answer sets us free.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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