Still curious…

I’ve been re-reading Ian Leslie’s excellent book Curious. I confess to being somewhat tired at present of the ceaseless ebb and flow of argument in the profession. To me it only points to one thing: the fact that people will never agree about what education is, or what it is for. And the endless churning of educational rumination speaks of other truths: a profession that is has become utterly self-obsessed, and simultaneously in search of a single, crystallised purpose that it will never find. I don’t blame the education profession for this loss of intellectual confidence; it is simply the product of serving a society that demands simple answers to complex questions. But if we were able to follow our own good advice more closely, we might find it easier to rise above it all, and focus on that which makes the most difference.

It is almost as though we are trying too hard. Or is it that the education system has failed, in recent times, to promote the wider view such that even people in the profession can no longer see the simple, pure value of curiosity? Have we become educational jobsworths, blind to the real, inspirational value of it all? The endless discussion of teaching styles, management initiatives and performance indicators is obscuring this one simple fact: if we can cultivate people’s curiosities, then everything else pretty much falls into place. The real solution is to be found in less defined but more lasting truths – and if only the educational establishment would stop navel-gazing for a few moments, and look upward and outward to the one lasting quality that it supposedly promotes, then it might see that the answer is, in fact, disarmingly simple.

But this is not the precise science that many teachers now seem to want; curiosity is oblique and best approached accordingly. Nothing can be guaranteed to work with all the people all of the time; being adaptable, intuitive and even improvisational are as likely to work as anything more prescribed. Breaking the rules can be as successful as sticking to them.

I would suggest that the one essential thing is for the teacher to be endlessly curious them self.

So I offer a few extracts from the introduction to Leslie’s book that struck me as hammer blows for the eternal truth of what we should be trying to do:

“…the world is incredibly interesting. If you’re paying attention, everything in the world – from the nature of gravity, to a pigeon’s head, to a blade of grass – is extraordinary…the closer you look at anything, the more interesting it gets. But nobody tells you this.”

Not even many teachers, these days. Just hit those targets!

“Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of the smart question that nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns…pursuing it is liable to bring you into conflict with authority at some point…”

Tell me about it…

“Rather than just getting more people to school and university… the new challenge is to find ways of making more people hungry to learn, question and create”.

(Leslie observes the concerns of far Eastern nations that their schools are crushing curiosity and instilling mindless obedience; yet it is precisely those that our own system holds up as the desirable objective.)

“Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests; who have a strong intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times…for their enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part they will be worth the difficulty.”

Try persuading SLT of that…

“If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of colour, interest and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in your creative life….”

My work-life balance is doing that already.

“Our education system is increasingly focused on preparing students for specific jobs. To teach someone to be an engineer or a lawyer pr a programmer is not the same as teaching them to be a curious learner – and yet the people who make the best engineers, lawyers and programmers tend to be the most curious learners…we ask schools to focus on preparing students for the world rather than inspiring them, and we end up with uninspired students and mediocre professionals.”

Add teachers to that list.

“The true beauty of learning stuff, including apparently useless stuff, is that it takes us out of ourselves, reminds us that we are part of a far greater project, one that has been underway for at least as long as human beings have been talking to each other…”

Leslie’s observations come very close to embodying my own experience, one which ultimately led me to wish to teach. Leslie comes down firmly on the side of traditional approaches to education, though it’s necessary to read the book to find out why. And it’s worth asking why it is that our education system itself seems so intent on doing precisely the opposite; by doubting those who represent the views described above, it strikes me that it is disregarding precisely that which would make it work most successfully.

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4 thoughts on “Still curious…

  1. Fantastic “…it strikes me that it is disregarding precisely that which would make it work most successfully.” Me too and I’m speaking as a student looking at my teachers thinking; You’re being held back. Why do they pin you down like this? What are they afraid of?

    • What are they afraid of?

      Doing things that will get them into trouble, Leah – or worse, damage their career prospects. Or perhaps having to take responsibility for the complicated thing that is developing your own professional practice.

      • Totally understand what teachers are afraid of. The systems clever. Even if a teacher wants to leave, they can feel very caught. I was really asking what the people holding our teachers back are afraid of. The ones pulling our teacher’s strings… What do they fear? Because the need to control people like this, to the detriment of students and of real education towards independence, that can only come from fear, right?

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