Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Curiosity: The Essential Element

"Heaven is satisfied curiosity.” 
-Paola Antonelli

The word curiosity has been floating around my mind for about a year now. I've been thinking about it in terms of the people I know as well as the things I see and find interesting. Curiosity is defined as "1. A desire to know or learn. 2. A desire to know about people or things that do not concern one." I think that these are fine definitions as they communicate an openness and desire for knowledge. But in researching curiosity I came upon the quote above and it bears repeating: "Heaven is satisfied curiosity." What a wonderful way to look at curiosity. As creatures who are put here on earth for a finite amount of time and who are imbued with the image of our Creator it comes to reason that curiosity is the desire to know things beyond this earthly realm. Curiosity exists because we are made for more than this world and we desire to know what comes next. Curiosity is part of the human makeup and I would argue that a curious spirit is fundamental to a full and interesting life. 

Those among us who are the most curious are generally children. What makes it so much more fun to go to a museum or zoo with a child? It's their wonder at the things they see, their openness to a new experience, their way of seeing things our jaded adult eyes often miss. Now think of the most interesting people in your life. In my life they are the people who have cultivated this sense of inquiry. They have not settled for their current store of knowledge, they are constantly seeking more, asking questions, delving deeper. These are the people that you enjoy hanging out with at social events. They're generally the people who ask you questions but don't settle for rote answers. They discuss ideas and truths, not people. Like Eleanor Roosevelt's famous quote: "Great minds discuss ideas; Average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people." These are the people who ask questions and genuinely listen. You can tell they are absorbing information and not just preparing their response. They are also the people who can admit that they may need to shift their perspective in the face of new information. Whenever I encounter people like this I walk away from our conversation challenged, re-energized, and usually mulling over a new idea. 

Unfortunately, curiosity seems to be a fragile trait: One that can easily be squelched in childhood. Ken Robinson's articles and books on education decry the industrial model our schools often take. He finds these methods are not only inept in educating children, they also destroy creativity and curiosity. He also states that the emphasis on testing stunts a child's natural ability to think outside the box. In aiming education toward "one right answer" children are steered away from their unique perspectives. I loved taking my little sister Katie to the museums here in Paris because she had an entirely unique perspective. She found humor in serious subjects, noticed things I hadn't seen despite many previous visits. She didn't feel the pressure to know have the "right" perspective, yet, she also asked questions and was curious about the pieces. We discussed art history and the development of different artistic styles. Her curiosity enriched her knowledge. And although she may have taken a month "off" from formal schooling in order to come to Paris, this was a month that opened up her world and made it even more interesting.

So, how as parents and teachers can you nurture that innate curiosity in children. And how can you do it without driving yourself mad answering their incessant questions? Here are a few tips:

1. Model curiosity yourself. If you are an inquisitive person, let your children see this. You do not need to have all the answers and it's fine for your children to know that you don't know everything. By being curious yourself you show them the importance of inquiry. And take time to cultivate your own curiosity. Attend workshops, classes, start a book club, take up a new hobby, visit museums. 

2. Answer their questions. This can be very difficult as children are constantly asking questions. Try to provide answer when you are able. If you do not know the answer, investigate together. Look up things online, visit the library and check out books on the subjects. And when children are old enough, turn the questions back to them. See if they can figure out answers themselves or use resources to independently learn. David Macaulay's books are wonderful resources to have on hand for questions about how things work, why buildings are built certain ways. Every family should own a copy of The New Way Things Work!

3. Read. You knew this was coming, right? It is in this area that I believe literary choices are very important. Choose books that are interesting and informative. Choose stories with characters who model curiosity. If your library is full of didactic books whose main aim is to teach a lesson, your child will not go to those books in search of answers. Provide books on subjects that interest them. Have you ever met a kid who didn't think ancient Egypt was fascinating? These were two of my favorite books on the subject when I was young: Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt and Tales of Ancient Egypt. These books showed me a new (albeit very very old) world and in discovering new worlds curiosity grows. Read stories of people who lived at different time periods and in different cultures. Purchase a good atlas so that you can look up these places and learn more about our amazing world.

4. Be flexible. Many home educators feel huge amounts of pressure from all sorts of different sources to prove that they are doing a good job. This is so natural. Whether you're facing disapproval from grandparents or friends or your community, choosing to homeschool is still a counter-cultural decision. While you may be feeling pressure to use a curriculum that is modeled after traditional models, one that allows you to easily measure progress, if it's not working ditch it. Trust your instincts. You know your children best and if you see their curiosity shrinking and studying history or literature or math regularly brings tears to your child's eyes, try a different path. Take a break from the worksheets, memorization, and testing, and pursue the subjects that make your child's eyes light up. Choose methods and curriculums that are built around a curiosity based world view. In the quest to create life-long learners, nurturing that creative spark is essential. There is a time for testing and measuring progress but true learning should not be sacrificed for quantifiable results. Some of the best knowledge cannot be gauged. Have you ever heard of a test for evaluating someone's creativity or wisdom? I am not talking about taking on a laissez-faire approach to education where there is no direction. On the contrary, this is an educational point-of-view that seeks to encourage the pursuit of education for its own sake. 

5. Move outside the classroom. This is such a fun way to encourage learning. Check into local museums, see if they have special programs for children. Take field-trips. Research your destinations beforehand and set up scavenger hunts. Go to plays, operas, concerts, poetry readings. Visit the botanical gardens. So often these institutions offer discounts for educators. They may also have special free days. Check with your local chamber of commerce for ideas of places to visit and child-friendly outings. 

I hope you find these tips helpful. I would love to hear about your experiences and the ways in which you foster your children's creativity. Have you ever quit using a curriculum when you noticed you children were not responding well? Share your stories! And if you have questions, feel free to ask. Let's get inspired in our creativity and curiosity!   

Photo Credit: Copyright LaserGuided via Flickr

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