Curiosity: The Essence of a Learning Mind

Dr. Weaver originally presented these comments at School Assembly on November 2, 2015.

“When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” - Margaret Atwood

The unbridled curiosity and imagination of Bill Watterson’s Calvin often land him in trouble. In one of my favorite strips, Calvin quips to Susie Derkins, “Curiosity is the essence of the scientific mind.” To the disgust of his friend, who happens to be seated next to him at lunch, Calvin tests his assertion by sticking straws up his nose to determine where milk goes when he laughs.

As often is the case with the comic, Calvin reveals a compelling idea that we understand to be true in multiple ways: Curiosity is indeed the essence of the scientific mind, and a key ingredient of learning and a growth mindset. It also is the essence of a fulfilling life and may even be a way to prevent diseases that cause memory loss later in life such as Alzheimer’s, according to George Mason University researcher Todd Kashdan, Ph.D.

Dr. Kashdan defines curiosity as “being open to new experiences, effectively managing ambiguity and uncertainty, and adapting to the demands required of different situations.” It is tough for anyone, child or adult, consistently to be open, accept uncertainty, and adapt. Yet, tolerating ambiguity, embracing messiness, learning from our mistakes and failures, and having the nimbleness to adjust to new situations are skills we feel that leaders need and, as educators, ones we ponder how to instill in our students to prepare them for our ever-changing world.

The important role of curiosity and uncertainty in our lives is also the subject of a new book by researcher Jamie Holmes, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. In a review of the book, KQED Mindshift writer Linda Flanagan recommended a few of Mr. Holmes’s ideas to help parents and teachers teach kids to embrace uncertainty.

Mr. Holmes proposes that when subjects such as history and science are presented as indisputable facts in school, it closes us off to asking questions and wondering. For example, as the author of the review Ms. Flanagan suggests, when we talk about “the causes of World War I or the nature of matter” as facts that are “settled and complete,” we give students the idea that “no further questioning is needed because all the answers have been found.”

In fact, what we know is that the exact opposite is true. Our understanding of all disciplines is continually evolving. It would be far better for educators and parents, as Mr. Holmes advises, to expose that there are things we don’t know. When it is clear there are still countless “mysteries to be solved,” students retain “curiosity and humility.”

What are some things we can do? Mr. Holmes suggests in the MindShift article that we:
  • Acknowledge the emotions of curiosity: surprise, awe, interest, even confusion;
  • Work on projects that provoke uncertainty;
  • Encourage exploration, challenge, and revision;
  • Emphasize and study current debates in a field to determine what experts are uncertain about;
  • Show how discovery can be messy; and
  • Listen to experts talk about the mysteries they’re exploring.
Curiosity may be the most important attribute schools should strive to nurture in students. I find TED Talks to be a powerful tool in exposing a school community to the mysteries that experts are exploring, revealing debates within a field, showing the messiness of discovery, and provoking uncertainty. My family routinely watches Talks at home, and I show clips at school to stimulate conversation, questioning, and wonder. Our school hosts TEDxSonomaCounty annually to advance our mission within our community. Join us to explore Perspective on November 5, 2016.

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