This past August there was a NYTimes article written by David Brooks called “The Question-Driven Life” that profiled a wealthy man who has (unconventionally) built his life around pursuing the windy paths of his own curious mind. Two weeks ago NYTimes Magazine devoted the entire issue to education, and an article by Paul Tough explored new research and ideas about what character strengths make people successful and happy. They boiled the list down to seven traits, one of which is “curiosity”. These pieces, and The Wise Routes Project more generally, have gotten me curious about curiosity in our lives and in our schools.
The word “curious” always brings to mind two distinct images for me – one is, of course, Curious George, the personable monkey of my childhood with a love of giant yellow rain hats. The other (much stronger) image that comes to mind is my grandfather, “Gramps”, a man who, I believe, doesn’t just embody curiosity, but makes it contagious. People often debate whether it’s better to know a lot about one thing or a little bit about a lot of things. Gramps proves that you don’t have to choose. Despite having a degree from MIT and a long “specialized” career as a mechanical engineer for the family business, he has always been interested in much more than his own specialization. Gramps fills his time learning about, well, everything. He devours newspapers, magazines, and books, and watches TV shows about things he knows nothing about just to learn more.
Gramps approaches every conversation with the prowess and curiosity of an expert questioner. Have you ever met an expert questioner? This is someone that, whether they know everything or nothing about what you’re interested in, makes you feel like you are the most interesting person in the world. If they know nothing about what you do, they aren’t ashamed to begin with basic questions. “Oh you’re a firefighter?” they might say, “That’s something I know very little about! What is the first thing firefighters must know to do their job well?” or “What do you love about firefighting?” or “What questions do firefighters find themselves asking most often?” or “What’s something firefighters wish more people understood?” The expert questioner is driven by a curious mind, great listening skills, and a lack of ego. The curious questioner is someone that people like, because being around the curious questioner makes them feel smart and good about themselves.
Gramps and David Brooks and Paul Tough and more and more researchers and probably you understand that being a curious person makes you successful because you never stop being a student of the world. Because curiosity opens doors. Because you question before generalizing. Because you make other people feel smart and interesting.
We’re all born curious. Watch a baby interact with her surroundings for 5 minutes and her curiosity is tangible. She is curious about that stick and that worm and that bubble. She is curious about how sand tastes and how the bottle sounds when it drops and how many times you will pick it up for her. As children grow, they ask questions (especially “why?”) and test boundaries in new ways. I assume you know a kid, so I don’t have to tell you.
WHAT do we do with this beautiful wide-eyed spongy-ness? Saturday, at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, Brandon and I were entertained for half an hour just watching a one year old bobble around the park on new legs, approaching strangers, smiling at them, touching their clothes, falling on her butt, and wandering away. We watched as the baby’s parents observed her exploration but stayed seated, letting her roam free to investigate the people around her (as long as the people didn’t seem annoyed). Sometimes the mother would help her walk by holding her hands, but she let her baby guide the way, often to the blankets of random strangers so that she could touch their grapes and bread and sandals and smile at them with beautiful Gerber-baby cheeks.
Two and a half months ago at the beginning of the bike tour, we sat on a sandy beach in Stanley Park and observed a different family interaction. A 7 year old boy – a complete ball of energy – was too energetic for his father, who laid idly in his canvas beach recliner. “Why don’t you go find me a crab?” the dad said. “Ok!” The boy ran off, first to the edge of the water, and then towards some rocks in the distance. We watched quietly as the boy began looking under each rock, meticulously inspecting the sand and water below for traces of crabs. A few minutes went by before the father rolled over and caught sight of his son. Fury ensued. “WHAT are you doing all the way over there?!” He yelled. “I’m looking for crabs like you said,” the boy called back, “I think I might find some under these rocks!” His father wouldn’t have it. “I didn’t tell you you could go over there! Get back here right now! Right! Now!” The boy hung his head and walked back to sit in the sand. Discipline: 1, Curiosity: 0.
In the same way that Sir Ken Robinson says “Schools Kill Creativity“, I think some schools (and people) can kill curiosity. When we are scolded for wandering down the curious tangents of our own creative minds, or forced to memorize seemingly useless information, we become closed, boring, overly-disciplined workers. We lose a spark. We do things because we must, not because we want to, and we mentally separate “work” or “learning” from “life”. That’s an old way of thinking.
Fortunately, lots of people and schools are exploring better ways to nurture the curious minds of students. Brandon taught at a Howard Gardner School for the last two years, and experienced first-hand the value and beauty of letting kids explore their own interests with individualized attention and mentorship. I’m curious as to how this model could be expanded in schools with lots more students (like public schools).
Bike touring is a beautiful expression of “curiosity-restoration”. We’ve met so many people that we never would have interacted with in our stable DC bubble – from a retired bike-touring Swiss couple, to an old rural Washingtonian that grew up with 34 siblings and has only left the state to fight in wars, to a quirky pair of touring Spanish firefighters that don’t actually like biking, to a punky and brilliant semi-nomadic high school dropout, just to name a few. We have given ourselves permission to take time to wander through new ecosystems and habitats with child-like wonder, and we’ve tested our physical, mental, and emotional boundaries in new ways.
I have seized the opportunity to do away with ego and ask lots of questions, even when they feel dumb. It feels empowering to rediscover and revalue my “wide-eyed child” goggles. Or maybe I should say my “Gramps hat”.