An Education of Curiosity – Reinventing How Content Is Taught

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A healthy ecosystem has a high biodiversity. When threats arise, there must be a variety of approaches to overcome them, or all the organisms will die out. So too with humans: we need biodiversity (unique approaches) if we are to overcome the looming threats of our time.

But school doesn’t cultivate biodiversity. No. Rather, it suppresses it.

Traditional education systems, as well as many envisioned ones, have a fundamental flaw: we teach children what to think, but not how to think.

In doing so we inflict the prejudices and constraints of society on the minds of our young. As a result, everyone thinks similar things. This precludes the independent thought, creativity, and unique approaches we so sorely need. 

The current education system conditions children to learn from others. They read and read, their opinions becoming an amalgamation of what they have read. They serve as a host to thousands of ideas, uncoordinated by the thought and understanding schools discourage.

So, we have identified the problem. But how do we solve it?

An education of curiosity

Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind – Plato

Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed in an education of curiosity. Instead of sitting in classrooms, vegetatively absorbing content, students become active and independent agents, exploring the world around them and drawing their own conclusions. This encourages creativity, fostering alternative approaches and independent thinkers.

He abandoned the idea as hopeless, however; thinking it a wishful dream. Not so. Centuries later digital technology allows us to realize his vision.

It has become so easy to place a child into a virtual environment where he can find solutions to situations that arise. Video games do it all the time.

All we must do then is modify these environments, that they provide opportunities for learning. The role of a teacher becomes simply to provide the stimulus necessary for a child to grow. 

A practical education

Play is not a break from learning. It is endless, delightful, deep, engaging, practical learning – Vince Gowmon Click To Tweet

This education would be about responding to necessity, maximising the actual experiences of a child. Teachers can put students in situations (such as running a company, building circuits to fix things) which require a solution, introducing an urgency and poignancy to their learning. Their heads are not filled with the idle, ‘just-in-case’ information of school, but with dynamic knowledge and skills. A lesson learnt by experience has a much larger impact on the young mind than books. 

Play is the highest form of research. ~ Albert Einstein

Such an education is already being provided with games like Minecraft which is being used to make education more collaborative, engaging and creative. This provides a valuable model we may learn from. There is no good reason why learning shouldn’t be fun.

In fact, I am of the belief that school should simply be a continuation of the childs learning process, albeit in a more formalized manner. It can and should be fun. 

Preserving the spirit of a child

The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age – Aldous Huxley Click To Tweet

We will now look at some of the neurological and social reasons children learn faster, and examine how we can recreate this in our education system.

Why children learn so fast

Let us start with the social reasons, which are more simple:

  1. Children are endlessly curious, constantly looking to learn.
  2. They are full of wonder and enthusiasm, meaning they are want to learn, and form strong emotional attachments to what they learn
  3. Learning is a full-time job for them; they worry about little else
  4. Children are not scared of failure. They experiment and try new things.
  5. They are plunged into a world of new information, and have to catch up quickly to survive
  6. Children are allowed to learn by experience, which is more powerful than books

There are also important neurological reasons:

  1. Children have a high neural plasticity. Their brains are not yet optimized; adults reinforce connections to make them more effective, but in doing so make it harder to create new connections. Children’s brains are more supple, and can form new connections easily.
  2. They have not undergone significant neural pruning, the destruction of unused neurons, meaning less connections can be formed.
  3. Children have more active neurons which form new connections. An adult’s neurons are already part of a reinforced structure.
  4. Because of this rigid structure adults are less responsive to stimulus. Children, whose minds are dynamic, learn more easily then.
  5. Decreasing cognitive functions and increasing proficiency in existing skills interferes with learning.
  6. The brain is like a muscle, which most adults do not take care of. Childrens brains are not yet full of junk; they are fresh, sharp and healthy.

How we can recreate this

Socially

The social reasons are quite easy to recreate. Our ‘education of curiosity’ cultivates, well, curiosity, and by making learning engaging can inspire wonder and enthusiasm. It allows children to learn by experience, forming stronger emotional attachments with new information.

Further than this we must ensure that children are not preoccupied with much else besides learning. We must create a safe environment for them, and encourage questions and failure. We can also seek to plunge them into foreign concepts, rather than dipping their toes in it.

The benefits of this are something I have observed doing AP (advanced programme) maths: the program challenges you with a very difficult sum which you may fail miserably. However, when you start doing normal maths again, you find that the easier concepts come naturally. In trying the harder sum, you have ‘assumed’ them in a sense, and begun to automatically do them. You skip the whole introductory phase. Further, seeing how these easier concepts are later applied makes it much easier to get the hang of them.

For this reason I believe we must plunge students into new worlds of learning, which forces them to make sense of things quite quickly.

Neurologically

This is slightly more tricky, but quite doable.

In a previous blog post I talked about how philosophy, or meditation, or any sort of reflection really, promotes a dynamic intellect. Through these methods we question our beliefs and thoughts, and in this way become used to change, fluidity, adaptation. We deliberately cultivate an open mind. An open mind is simply one that more easily forms new connections and prunes old ones, that has fluid neural structures, similar to that of a child. A compulsory journalling/meditation practice sounds quite appealing in this light.

Another way we can encourage more childlike minds is to reduce children’s exposure to the prejudices and thought of society. We must not impose knowledge on children, as this creates ruts of thought, rigid neural structures. It also clutters the mind. Instead they must come to their own conclusions about the world, and we must keep their minds clear; this can be accomplished through an education of curiosity.

We must also strive to keep student’s minds sharp and agile, through deliberate training. The mind is ultimately a muscle, and if it is not being properly exerted, it deteriorate. This can be accomplished by establishing benchmarks and testing the faculties of the mind. Through mental training (brain games to sharpen the mind), sort of like gym training for the brain, our school can ensure its students are kept mentally fit. 

The wisdom of children

Great is the human who has not lost his childlike heart – Mencius Click To Tweet

Children are innocent, unadulterated by the prejudice of society. They possess a certain wisdom that all the wise men and sages of the world find elusive.

Language is a tool for categorization. It divides the world up into neat definitions, which is really useful. However language also powerfully shapes, and limits, our thoughts. As I explain in my blog post, language acts like a filter for how we percieve reality. It categorizes everything into neat boxes, but in the process fragments our perception, of unity and continuity.

So too with much of what we teach children. We seek to categorize the world, as it gives us power over it. But children possess a certain wisdom: their perception is more ‘raw’, unfiltered by acquired constructs. This allows them to better see, by intuition that is beyond intellect, the unity and continuity of all things. This is a wisdom we should seek to preserve, once again by reducing societies influence on their young minds (through our education of curiosity) and encouraging learning not through the medium of words, but by the infinitely more powerful mentor of experience.

Sorry if that was a bit philosphical or obscure. If you didn’t really understand what I was getting at, I first recommend you read my blog post about the power of language in shaping thought, which will hopefully shed light on the topic. I’d also be glad to discuss it in the comments section below.

Uniqueness and peculiarity

We have over the past century been moving steadily towards a standardisation of most things. This influence is especially corrosive in education; students are made to conform to the school, rather than the school adapting to the child. Because of this many schools have begun to resemble factories, churning out like-minded units based on a blueprint of a good adult. 

This is not what we need however. As discussed earlier, biodiversity in an ecosystem means it will survive and thrive, while monoculture means death when a crisis arises. We need unique approaches, creative innovation, to face the world’s urgent problems. This change starts with our schools.

Luckily, our ‘education of curiosity’ allows us to do just that. It does not force knowledge on students, but leads them to discover themselves, and draw their own conclusions. In this way students preserve their unique characteristics, and we get the unique approaches we need.

An education must seek to preserve the spirit of a child rather than sacrificing it so he may become an adult. We need to preserve the uniqueness, the wisdom and the innocence of children; we need a new approach to education.

An education must seek to preserve the spirit of a child rather than sacrificing it so he may become an adult Click To Tweet

To Finish Off

Innovations in technology and the philosophy of education are constantly improving our schools, bit by bit. But what education really needs is a revolution, an entirely new way of learning, which this blog post attempts to lay out.

The purpose of this blog post has been to provoke thought. We must involve as many people as possible in this debate: of how our future schools should look and operate. So please, leave your thoughts in the comments down below: criticisms, alternative ideas, questions. I’d be delighted to discuss them with you.

‘An Education of Curiosity’is part three of three in a series on ‘Building the ideal education system from scratch’. The first entry, on ‘Technology in the future of education’ can be found here. The previous entry, on ‘What should we teach studentscan be found here.


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Brian Scoles
17 days ago

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Thank you for the reminder of the role that wonder plays in education.