Why We Should Encourage Curiosity: The Case for Teaching Ignorance

A week ago, August 24th to be exact, I came upon this quote embedded in an editorial entitled The Case For Teaching Ignorance by Jamie Holmes in the NY Times:

“…in recent years scholars have made a convincing case that focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.”

I couldn’t help but think of the recent Fox News TV debate by the odd assortment of Republican candidates for the Presidency. What I saw and heard, in addition to blustery Donald Trump, was a bunch of men making declarative, sweeping generalizations about their positions on various matters that were often ridiculous. It seemed they were trying to make their positions clear to the American people in the hope of becoming the favored candidate.

This kind of mano a mano debate leaves everyone dissatisfied. How can a few targeted, and sometimes loaded, questions responded to with truncated air-bites by the candidates give us the information we need for carefully choosing a new President? The process has almost become a parody of itself.

Many would agree that uncertainty is where we live at this point in time in the United States (and perhaps the world at large). We no longer have all the answers…that has become abundantly clear. Our Middle-East policies have failed, our financial institutions are failing working Americans, our education system is in turmoil, our medical system is in a state of constant flux. So how can a bunch of self-proclaimed experts on tv claim to have all the answers?

One of the few changes that I do support in the Common Core is the renewed emphasis on teaching students to ask meaningful questions in their quest for knowledge. Not only do I believe students need to be encouraged to ask more and better questions, I also believe that teachers need to become facilitators for seeking knowledge rather than experts.

“The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline–where knowledge meets ignorance extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”

Children are naturally curious and we ought to be focusing on deveoping their passionate minds. Before retirement, one of my favorite (albeit old-school) ways of beginning a new unit of study was to use a K/W/L chart. This consists of hanging up a large piece of chart paper on a wall or easel with three columns entitled What do you KNOW (about the subject); What do you WANT to know; and What have you LEARNED (as a result of the lesson). I am always very interested in the middle column, which becomes a list of the students’ questions, because it is that list that will drive our inquiry process.

Once we agree on what we collectively know as a class and record that information in the first column of the chart, I allow students to choose a question from the list of questions in the middle column that they can research alone or with a partner or small group. Becoming invested in seeking answers is what helps students dig deeper for information (another appealing Common Core principle ) and “own” what they discover. This process is so much more thought provoking and motivating than having me spoonfeed them everything I think they need to know.

It would have been so refreshing to see anyone on stage during the Republican debate not pretend to know all the answers but to pause and ask some questions of his own that might have helped reframe the debate into a more meaningful exercise for the American people. This would have taken courage, but isn’t that a quality we are seeking in a President?

“Our students will be more curious–and more intelligently so–if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.” Let’s help our students to realize that it’s ok to ask thoughtful questions; to not know all the answers; to understand that knowledge changes over time; to learn that seeking knowledge is most of the fun. If you get a chance to read the Times article, you may find yourself questioning, as I did, your own model for teaching and, perhaps, how we run our political campaigns.

Addendum: One of my heroes, Oliver Sacks, about whom I recently wrote on this blog, died this past weekend. In a feature written by Gregory Cowles in Monday’s NY Times, Dr. Sacks, reflecting on his youth, is quoted:

“The thousand and one questions I asked as a child…were seldom met by impatient or peremptory answers, but careful ones which enthralled me (though they were often above my head.) I was encouraged from the start to interrogate, to investigate.”

Thank you for sharing your deep curiosity about life. Rest in peace, Dr. Sacks.