The Curious Ones

Photo by Katherine Volkovski on Unsplash

Albert Einstein said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” Clearly, Einstein had a good education; he was considered to be the most influential physicist of the 20th century. Yet as a child he was told by a teacher that he would never amount to anything. This unfortunate remark was made to a child who was too original and creative for the educational style of the day. It seems he kept being distracted by ideas about light waves and magnetic fields. I can imagine how frustrating this was for a teacher trying to show him how to identify a French verb. After all, not many people were curious about space/time in the 1800’s.

It is easy for educators to classify successful students as those who diligently lean over their books, finish assignments, and care about their grades. They are the ones we expect to do well in life, the easy ones, and we send them out into the world feeling like they are well prepared for its challenges. It only takes a little while to see whether a person continues to learn or whether they stopped learning back at school where they think it belongs.

Our goal should be to inspire a lifelong love of learning in our students. May I suggest that the curious ones will do better at this than the ones who check off all the high-school credits and stuff their brains into a frame along with their diplomas?

There are some students who thrive on following meandering trails off the beaten path of the course outline. These wanderers are curious about the cute kangaroo in the illustration on the page of prepositions. “Do you think it could also jump over a wall? Over a car? What about over a house?” At which point the teacher says, “Okay, let’s get back to the word over.”

They make unsolicited observations about the habits of the cardinals at the bird feeder and forecast precipitation because the clouds are stratus. This would be great if they didn’t do it during math class. They have burning questions about history, “Why is it called the Mason-Dixon line?” and have an uncanny way of catching their teacher off guard. Teachers learn not to seat them close to the window or in the back of the classroom, murmuring platitudes like, “Stay at your work,” and, “Focus,” as they walk past their desks.

It has been helpful for me to recognize the inherent intelligence that underlies curiosity. These are the children who love to learn, and random questions are a good indication that they have a thirst for knowledge, as well as enough imagination to wonder. Distraction is a problem, and it amplifies if a child learns to derail the whole class as a stall technique. At those times the teacher is tempted to tamp down any questions and rigidly stay the course. It takes wisdom to encourage learning about interesting things while at the same time assigning “boring things” such as verbs and nouns. Hats off to those who turn boring things into interesting ones!

In our home we call the distracting questions “squirrels”, because they are exactly like the squirrels that tempt our dog to break away from the leash and dash willy-nilly into the woods. We do chase squirrels a lot, because they are so exciting! Children do not easily forget research that they do when they really want to know. In fact, the genius of this sort of research is that it doesn’t feel like school or even like learning. It feels like fun. One year my son took a great interest in watching the skies. I bought a small cloud tracker with illustrations to help him identify each one. All of us learned a lot about clouds, and he took great satisfaction in marking the ones he saw. It didn’t occur to him that he was doing science in his spare time. Of course, there are times to be on the discipline of the leash. This is the teacher’s challenge: encouraging the curiosity while simultaneously teaching students to push through hard things.

In our quest to inspire love of learning, there are some valuable resources to help. A collection of field guides is very useful when Jonny wants to know what kind of trees are planted alongside the school yard and what kind of birds are eating the berries in the trees. He can look it up after class and tell everybody about it at lunchtime. Encyclopedia sets are a treasure trove for lovers of trivia, and dictionaries are great for the word nerds. Even if you know the answers to their questions, let them look it up and then tell what they learned. Obviously, for very young students, it takes a lot of the teacher’s time to help them find answers. The intersection of wonder and industry is often where curiosity gets shut down and learning becomes a grim business in textbooks.

Teachers are very busy people and squirrels do not seem so wonderful when the goal is to hike three miles at all costs. We, the educated ones in their eyes, model to our students what we believe about learning. It takes humility to say that we don’t know the answer to their question but we will try to find out. This reinforces in a student’s mind that we never stop learning, even when we are old enough to be the teacher.

Recently my fifth grader taped a simple motivational poster onto the wall above her desk. It came from a dollar store multi-pack and said one word, “Focus.” I applauded her for her insight into what tended to be an ongoing struggle, especially when it was time to do homework assignments. “Yes,” she agreed, “but there is also one that says, ‘Not all who wander are lost.’”

I couldn’t argue with that.

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