Westbourne Grammar

Curiosity killed the cat!

I think we all know this old cliché. It seems to me that it is a poor, if not destructive repost to our natural inquisitiveness, as its message is one of:

- Don’t ask
- Don’t experiment
- Don’t create
- Don’t think.
Above all, don’t look under the bed.

The origin of this particular cliché is attributed to Ben Johnson from his play ‘Every Man in His Humour’ written in 1598. I think Johnson, a creative thought leader and influential writer and diarist, would have been horrified to imagine that this one phrase had become such a weapon of thought control. (Refer George Orwell ‘s ‘1984’ for more on that subject) .

Curiosity is exactly what makes us human. Instinctively we know that curiosity is essential to our learning over the course of our lifetimes. Despite this we often silence curiosity and learn as children that too much curiosity might be a ‘bad’ thing. Hence the cliché, hence the caching of information, the prescribing of learning content and experiences.

This is disturbing because we know from research (as early as 1954) that when people are curious about something they learn more, and better. I think we can all recall a time when something piqued our interest and we followed that thread with great attention and engagement. This is curiosity at work. Daniel Berlyne demonstrated the power of curiosity in the 1950s when “…he read lists of facts to people, including some that were surprising to them, and led them to ask questions. Later when asked to recall those lists, subjects remembered the items that had piqued their curiosity better than the others.”

From the moment we are born, we exhibit this overpowering need to know. Babies explore textures and sensations, toddlers play with objects in different ways until their curiosity is satisfied. Once language is acquired, youngsters question relentlessly and understand a great deal more than we often give them credit for.

Culturally we notice that the intense curiosity of our first five years of life gradually dwindles. This might be explained in part by everyday life becoming more familiar, and the reduction in curiosity is a natural by-product of increased knowledge. However, I think our behaviour with the virtually infinite research capacity of the internet demonstrates our need to know is actually undiminished. I am certain that for most people our curiosity has been awakened by technology because the answers are so easy to research. Finding the questions to ask which enhance learning is a much harder task.

This is where schools become so important. In short, teachers need to ask more questions and, in doing so, encourage their students to ask more questions and leave behind the role of passive imbiber of knowledge.

How might this work in reality? Westbourne has adopted SOLO Taxonomy as a way of stimulating curiosity by encouraging students to move beyond readily understood knowledge into the areas of thinking known as ‘relational’ and ‘extended abstract’. A relational question seeks to connect previous learning in several alternate ways, and the ultimate of extended abstract questioning pushes students into thinking into new frontiers of understanding and learning.

At the risk of uttering another cliché, twenty-first century learning should be thought of as an education where questions become the goal of the learning activity rather than the by-product. Curiosity needs, in short to be reclaimed as an essential behaviour for successful human life.

“Curiosity is a delicate little plant which, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom” (Einstein).

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