Is Education Killing Curiosity?

With all the rhetoric about what’s wrong with education today and how to fix it, there is no shortage of opinions and perspectives about raising the test scores that demonstrate student achievement. Our students will need to compete globally in the sciences and engineering fields, so STEM-based instruction and Next Generation Science Standards are taking the stage next to Common Core language arts and math. Technology has made it possible for us to learn and communicate in ways we never thought possible even ten years ago, and it’s almost impossible to find an educational plan that doesn’t include the phrase “21st century skills.”

And yet, from assessment and accountability to standards and research-based instructional strategies, reformers are debating long and hard about what our teachers should be doing differently so that our students have the necessary exit scores to compete in a global society.

Meanwhile, back in the classrooms, teachers everywhere are doing everything short of tap dancing on the tables to engage students, help them think for themselves, discover solutions to problems, and be able to demonstrate their learning on the high-stakes tests that determine the effectiveness of the system.

Therein lies the disconnect for me. Are we preparing kids to solve real-world problems, investigate and experiment possible solutions, collaborate with others and communicate their learning? Or are we preparing them to deliver the right answers and produce test scores?

I’m skeptical that the “right answer” approach allows for the kind of complex, open-ended exploration and experimentation that our current real-world problems require, not to mention the fact that we don’t even know what many of the next real-world problems will be yet.

If we are trying to prepare kids for real-world problem solving, measuring that preparedness with bubble sheets is a bit like measuring rice with a colander.

I’ve taken my share of tests, but my successes or failures in the “real world” aren’t linked back to any single or collective performance on those bubble sheets. Before you get all excited, I’m not suggesting that we do away with assessments. There are fundamental skills, facts, and data points that students must have in order to form a foundation for advanced learning. I believe there should be academic standards and a measure in place for students just as they’ll have performance expectations and evaluative measures in the business world.

All I’m suggesting is that the challenges we face in our professional lives are rarely as simple as choosing the right answer, and most will agree that our professional growth in the real world has little to do with a standard evaluation process. Real life is more complicated than that.

My professional path has largely been shaped by the experiences I’ve gained searching out and considering other perspectives from colleagues and mentors, exploring solutions to problems that didn’t have an apparent or obvious answer, communicating in many different ways with many different types of people, and learning from a lot of things that didn’t work.

The most meaningful and impactful experiences are rooted in our own natural curiosity – a personal, passionate yearning to find out what, why, or how something works or could work better. Throw in a little trial and error so that we can actually learn from our mistakes. Those are the meaningful learning experiences that shape our growth and contribute to the development of our cognitive backpacks – at age 5 or at age 50. Those are the kind of experiences that simply cannot be measured by a scantron machine.

Let’s be honest, kids aren’t curious about the right answer. They may want to producethe right answer to get the grade, but there really is no intrinsic value to getting the right answer. The philosophers among us could debate the intrinsic value of education all day long (and I’d love to participate in that conversation), but where does innate curiosity fit into standards, assessment, compliance, and all the research-based strategies in pursuit of the data streams that prove or disprove that learning is actually happening?

Kids are innately curious about why things work and how things work and what might happen if… I can hear the cynics out there. “Curiosity? How do you measure that? How many people have landed a job based upon their level of curiosity?”

But, isn’t curiosity the basis for understanding, creativity, and critical, innovative thinking? Isn’t curiosity the foundation for all meaningful learning? Real, authentic learning is nurtured by our curiosity and manifested in the information we actively seek out, in what we read, write, discuss, and think about.

Former Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield once said, “To me, science is just formalized curiosity. A way of figuring something out when I don’t understand it.” That really resonates in a profoundly powerful yet simple way.

Another relevant thought that comes to mind is that of Albert Einstein. “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” Curiosity is the very basis for education, and it appears that we are slowly killing it with our focus on binary measures of learning.

If we are going to focus on the “right answer” method rather than the kind of innovative and critical thinking skills necessary for authentic, meaningful learning in the 21st century, we’ll do it at the expense of curiosity.

You might also enjoy reading 11 Things to Remember to Keep Your Passion for Teaching.

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the President and Founder of The Andrick Group. Melissa specializes in growing our capacity to learn as well as employee engagement, effective communication strategies, and the unique dynamics of the multi-generational workforce. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies that impact how organizations think, learn, communicate and collaborate.

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