Curiosity Does Not Equal Chaos

 This is the second post in our December series: “Intellectual Curiosity in Our Schools”. Kevin “Doc” Dougherty is a special education and math teacher who has since moved into the ranks of administration. He currently works as an assistant principal in Harlem and resides with his amazing wife and two beautiful children in the County of Kings. Kevin considers himself a “great schools” advocate (regardless of public, charter, private, etc) and will go to great lengths to improve education for all students.

“Daddy, what’s this?  Can I look at that? Daddy, how does that work?” This was the continuous string of phrases my 4-year old son recently flung (that’s what it feels like after 5 hours of non-continuous weekend sleep due to child nightmares) at me while perusing in the local Barnes and Noble.  To torture every parent or to allow for the most holiday gift variety, this giant bookstore ensures that each and every aisle is amply stocked, not only with interesting books, but also the latest toys, gadgets, and trinkets.  The in-store marketing engineers, or whatever the decision makers may be called, have also made sure that all things relevant to those under the height of four feet are stocked at a height between twelve and forty-two inches.  That way, the three questions listed above can roll off a four-year-old’s tongue at an approximate rate of thirty per minute.  However, within this Saturday bombardment, there lies a small lesson.  I believe it goes something like this.

Children’s thirst for knowledge about the world is simply unquenchable.  Or it should be.

Show me a child that doesn’t like to discover new things, and I will show you a child that has had an adult in his/her life who has discouraged this type of behavior.  Now, surely I am not naive enough to think that some of my son’s questions didn’t stem from American holiday gluttony that we try to shield him from.  Yet, as I ducked his questions, and as I repeatedly responded with “not today,” or “come on, we need to pay,” I realized that many of his questions did not come from being spoiled but simply (or at least partly) from the fact that he was incredibly curious about the bookstore environment and its contents.  We had a schedule to keep, however, in those moments, in some perverted way, I became an adult shrinking my child’s curiosity of the world.  In no way, am I implying that I should have allowed my child to dictate the rest of our day by discovering new educational games, toys, and books within a money making machine.  I simply am stating that children possess a natural curiosity for new things; too often, this intrigue gets pushed to the side.

Of all the communities children belong to outside of their families, the one that should encourage curiosity the most is often times one that strikes it down.  William Butler Yeats (or someone else…it isn’t very clear) once stated, “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Yet, too many classrooms still feel as though students who are able to follow pail-filling directions will ultimately become victorious at the end of our system.  Students who follow rules, know how to “play the game,” and have a safety net to overcome possible setbacks will ultimately hold the diploma trophy.  I’m not saying that people, pedagogy, or theory have not adapted to current educational and psychological research, but the ground game often times does not seem to equate to what is preached.

In my brief ten year career, I have found that broadly proclaimed pro-curiosity schools usually fit into one or more of a few categories; they reside in a well-to-do community where test scores can almost take care of themselves and pedagogy can be quite flexible, they are a selective school that screens their candidates to take the best of the best, or they are led by a fearless leader who realizes that all students learn best in a structured environment that sparks a fire within children’s brains and hearts and promotes heaping servings of unfettered curiosity.  Curiosity does not equal chaos.  It simply allows students to take possession of their learning and, with some guidance, scaffold their thoughts in a way that makes sense of the world and is meaningful to them.

The last point I will make on this issue is with regards to standardized testing.  Too often, teachers and administrators complain that they are overly constrained by what the state government expects and cannot deviate for fear of not covering the necessary material.  This statement is somewhat true, however through authentic learning experiences (i.e. content-specific authentic texts, evaluating real world issues, community service projects, labs), students can build an understanding of the world that takes them past any standard the state has set for them.  In any perpetually high-achieving school (regardless of any demographic data), they do not teach to the test, they teach above the test.  Students’ experiences and knowledge take care of the rest.

When we inspire children, most often they will follow.  No matter what has happened before we meet a student, it is our only job to ignite a flame and a passion that will continue to burn well after we are gone. If we can do that, the world may be a little bit brighter.

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