Nurturing curiosity & inspiring the pursuit of discovery
February 24, 2011
The courage to make mistakes is related in some measure to curiosity, exploration, and the ability to speak honestly about a topic and about ourselves. For it is fear of mistakes, of being wrong, and the possibility of ridicule that stops us from showing our natural curiosity. The openness to show your natural curiosity in front of others requires one to be vulnerable. In her book The Gift of Imperfection, Dr. Brené Brown says "Ordinary courage is about putting vulnerability on the line. In today's world that's pretty extraordinary." Passionate curiosity demonstrates many things to others, including that we don't know all the answers or even that we are uncertain about various things. In today's world of cable news sound bites, entrenched positions, and unyielding opinions, revealing our uncertainty or changing our point of view as we discover more and delve more deeply in the material is often seen as weakness. Certainty is seen as strength. Yet admitting you don't know our that you're not yet sure, or that you need more information or more time and so on takes more courage than faking certainty or going along with conventional wisdom because it is safe.
We are born curious—so what happened?
Earlier I wrote a piece entitled "The need for connection & engagement in education" -- but I should have used the word school in place of education. Education is not the problem. For where there is education — and the best education is usually self-education — there is necessarily participation and engagement with the material, and our curiosity thrives. The problem for a lot of us — teacher and student — is school, especially large institutional schools. Our methods of instruction — or perhaps it is just the system itself — do a poor job of nurturing students' natural curiosity. This is nothing new. Einstein said many years ago that "it is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry....” In this short video clip below Dr. Michio Kaku says that we are born scientists. Children go through much of their childhood driven by a natural and insatiable curiosity about life, but somewhere along the line we all but extinguish that flame of curiosity. Dr. Kaku says that school often results in "crushing curiosity right out of the next generation." Watch the clip below (or on YouTube).
Dr. Michio Kaku: "We [all] are born scientists."
Rewarding curiosity vs. rewarding certainty
We are obsessed with giving prizes to students who memorize the most facts and bits of information (and in the shortest amount of time). Why don't we give prizes for the students who demonstrate their unabashed curiosity and demonstrable pursuit of discovery? A driving child-like curiosity and sense of wonder is an undeniable sign of intelligence. The curious can eventually overcome their ignorance, but the chronically incurious—and yet self-assured—are stuck with their ignorance for a lifetime.
I don't know all the components of a good teacher (or a good presenter), but certainly a necessary element of good teaching is curiosity. That is, demonstrating our own curiosity and inspiring and cultivating the natural curiosity in others. The ineffective teachers are the ones who have lost their curiosity and sense of wonder for their subject or even for their job. You can't fake curiosity and wonder. The best teachers are the ones who show their own desire to learn more about their subject and who are not afraid to show mistakes or admit that they don't know it all. The best teachers guide, coach, inspire, and feed that natural flame of curiosity that lives within every child. The courage to teach, then, is the courage to expose yourself as you demonstrate your curiosity and wonder for your subject. This kind of passion is infectious (and memorable).
Curiosity has its own rewards
If I were hiring employees I would look for the insanely curious and hungry applicants not necessarily the ones who ticked off all the correct boxes and jumped through all the right hoops in school. I would look for the highly educated and talented but not necessarily the highly schooled. School for a student is ephemeral and short, but learning, self-education, and inquiry last a life time so long as a student's unabashed curiosity remains alive. The best teachers (or trainers, coaches, etc.) are those who light the sparks and inspire students to pursue a lifetime of exploration and discovery. "School" says the rewards are cash, status, and security. But wouldn't it be great if our lessons instilled the notion in students something which they already knew when younger but may have forgotten: "Curiosity has its own reason for existing," as Einstein said. Curiosity has its own rewards.
Michio Kaku refers to Richard Feynman at the end of the video clip above. This video here features Richard Feynman talking about his father's influence.
Note: Click on slides for a larger size.