Webster’s dictionary defines curiosity, an attribute which most educational systems tries to develop in their students as the eagerness to learn, understand, question or ask why.
Why then is it that the degree of curiosity seems to decline in many students as they move through the educational system.
Granted that is a subjective statement because as of yet there is no objective test to quantify curiosity in a given student. However as our children move though an education system their eagerness to find answers to questions like "Why is yellow yellow?" seems to wane.
One reason may be because many parents and educators spend too much time focusing on the answers instead of the questions.
For example many parents try to answer the unbounded curiosity of their preschooler or first grader by simply answering their questions. However many times they continue to ask why the answer is what it is because they have not yet developed the concept of finality.
For example I can remember asking my mother "Why is yellow yellow?". However instead of answering she said "You tell me". Wanting to impress her I began looking for the answer. After a while I told her the reason is because it was no other color. She said that I was correct. I wore a proud smile as I told my first grade teacher what I had done. However that feeling did not last very long because I soon realized that looking for the answer had keep my mind occupied for quite some time. I think my mother realized that I need an outlet for my curiosity to be happy because a few days later she brought my smile back when she asked me "Why is yellow not any other color?" That question has kept me occupied for my entire life. Not the question but the realization that there is no finality to answers and ones curiosity regarding them.
Finality is the enemy of curiosity because it prevents the mind from going further than it normal would and an educational system that is based on it systematically inhibits it because it teaches students not to look beyond the answers.
For example, traditionally educators measure the progress of students in terms of his or her ability to answer questions based in many cases on lectures or reading assignments. If a student does not define the answer in those terms he or she in most cases does not get credit for it. The finality of this testing procedure conditions many to accept answers and not to question or be curious why those answers are what they are.
One cannot teach curiosity one must plant the seed.
The first step is understanding that curiosity is not defined only by the desire to find answers but a desire to look beyond them towards the future.
One way of accomplishing this is by not asking questions that have a predefined answer.
For example asking a student questions like "Why yellow is yellow" will force him or her to question why things are what they are. Additionally the fact that he or she cannot find the answer in books requires him or her to look beyond traditional mental patterns developed by our educational system and devise creative solutions based on an internal conceptual analysis.
However what makes this question uniquely different from the standard questions on many tests such as "Why is the sky blue?" is that it does not have a predefined answer. As mentioned earlier our traditional educational system expects students to define the answers to questions such as "Why is the sky is blue?" in terms of the predefined answers found in his or her text book. This "my way or the highway" approach to education inhibits the development of curiosity because most students know that if they use it to devise a more creative solution they will most likely not get credit for their answer. This conditions students to focus their curiosity only on what they can find in books in instead using it for creative proposes.
However the questions like "Why is yellow yellow?" forces the mind to create conceptual solutions based non-factual attributes of what defines a color which are not predefined in books.
Yet the most productive and beneficial forms curiosity usually begins and ends in an environment external to its participants. For example, Einstein’s Theories of Relativity began when he became curious about what the world would look like to someone riding on a beam of light, a non physical environment he could never participant in.
However most of the questions on the standard tests given by modern educators have a predefine beginning and end in a physical environment students can participate in.
For example the question "Why the sky blue?" has a beginning in the question why and an ending in the scientific explanation of the properties of light given in the physically accessible environment of a text book.
However the question "Why is yellow yellow?" does not have a predefined beginning because the due to its circular properties the answer in part defines the question. Additionally because the answer cannot be found in a book students must rely on his or her ability to conceptualize the question in the non-physical environment of his intellect.
Curiosity and the ability to conceptualize solutions go hand in hand. One can exist without the other however they support and enhance each other.
The educational value of questions like "Why is yellow yellow?" is that it forces students to rely on their internal ability to conceptualize solutions instead of their ability to find answers in a book or on the internet.
One way to keep curiosity and its creative potential alive in students as they move through an educational system is to reward them by giving them credit for internally conceptualized creative solutions that are developed independently of factual information they can derive from a book or internet.
Doctors tell us that our muscles will atrophy if one does not exercise. Similarly the curiosity and creativity of our students atrophy if they are not exercise.
We as educators have a responsibility to allow their curiosity to roam through environments that have not already been traveled and recorded in our textbooks by asking questions that they do not contain the answers to and giving credit for independently created solutions.
Copyright 2012 Jeffrey O’Callaghan
Vol. 3 — 2012