The War on Student Curiosity: Why We Need to Rethink Education

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The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.

~ C. S. Lewis, British writer & theologian

There is a famous and beloved scene from the movie Dead Poets Society starring the late Robin Williams as an English teacher in an all-boys prep school. The scene opens with an absurdly thick textbook being distributed throughout the classroom. The teacher - Mr. Keating - asks one of the boys to read a heavy-handed introduction explaining how to analyze poetry by graphing its perfection versus its importance. The reading ends with the statement, “As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.” Really?

Mr. Keating then orders students to rip those pages from the book.  “Keep ripping, gentlemen!” he bellows to the surprised boys. “This is a battle. A war. And the casualties could be your hearts and souls . . . Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry. No! We'll not have that here. . . Now, my class, you will learn to think for yourselves again.”

The movie is over thirty years old, but Mr. Keating’s assertion that war is being waged against young learners' curious hearts and souls is startlingly relevant. 

Today, in what is often described as the Information Age, the act of learning is undergoing a redefinition, whether society is ready for it or not. Maybe we all need to take Mr. Keating’s sage advice regarding the tried and true teaching manual of the past century. Maybe it’s time to rip out some pages from that manual and focus on how to help students think for themselves.

The History of Education

If you’re interested in a model of learning, you don’t start with a production-line mentality.

 ~ Sir Ken Robinson, British author &  Professor Emeritus

For centuries, if not millennia, the learning model has overwhelmingly been that children should “go to school” to be taught by knowledgeable adults. In ancient Sumeria, for example, boys of wealthier families were often tasked with learning to be “scribes,” an arduous process that required them to sit from dawn to dusk in front of a master scribe and memorize an exhaustive number of picture-like symbols that served as their alphabet. In ancient Greece, teachers were considered "masters of truth" and messengers of the gods whose wisdom and teachings were not to be questioned. All ancient civilizations had some form of education, though many educational practices were reserved for those intended for the life of a priest or other religious duty. In Ancient China, though, education was distinctly secular, and most teachings were about morality and duty towards others and one’s society.

It’s interesting to note that sufficient evidence shows that hunter-gatherer communities who preceded these ancient societies did not formally educate children. Instead, they allowed children to learn about the world through play, mimicry, and exploration. The discovery of farming changed that since most children were needed as laborers. For a vast stretch of history, only a tiny fraction of children had the luxury of being educated. Private tutors would educate children of the upper classes to prepare them for a life of wealth maintenance, strict social roles, and, in some cases, a place in the intellectual elite. 

The arrival and spread of Protestant ideas throughout Europe was one of the first times in western civilization that reading became an educational goal for almost everyone, as native language versions of the Bible began to be printed for common consumption. Before this, Bible had been printed in Latin only and was intended not for commoners but for the clergy alone. It wasn’t until the advent of industrialization that the idea took hold that childhood should be spent learning various essential skills like reading, writing, math, and religious doctrine. The prevailing attitude of most western societies in the nineteenth century was that attending school constituted a child’s “job,” and willful children would be punished if they did not stay on task. 

The Current State of Mainstream Education

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.

~ Oscar Wilde, Irish poet & playwright

Education in America as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon. States were given control of their education systems in 1791 as part of the passage of the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution. It wasn’t until 1852 that education was made mandatory in the US, only in Massachusetts. Other states slowly adopted similar laws until, in 1917, Mississippi became the last state to do so. An interesting interactive infographic about education's history shows how slowly education has become mainstream over the past thousands of years. More than 90 percent of all primary-age children worldwide now attend school.

The most common form of modern education in many parts of the world is similar to the same efficiency-based factory model that came to be during the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the 20th century, schools were quite similar to factories in striking ways: the start and end times often aligned with those of nearby factories; students went through classes, subjects, and even placement based solely on their age, following a strict schedule that aimed to satisfy the needs of an “average” learner, not able to take into account individual propensities or preferences. For a riveting explanation of this understanding of education, watch Sir Ken Robinson’s famous RSA Animate talk.

Sir Ken Robinson in “Changing Education Paradigms,” via

What Education Could Be

Today, with answers to nearly every question readily found through a Google search, many education systems are still based on the outdated assumption that information can only be gained through a lecturing teacher or textbook. Whether stated explicitly or not, many people still believe that a learner must be in the same room as an expert to “gain knowledge.” Yet, even the most willing and driven students would undoubtedly find absorbing the seemingly infinite amount of knowledge impossible. Which leads to a familiar conundrum: what content SHOULD a teacher teach?

One possible answer? Nothing.

Today’s - and certainly tomorrow’s - jobs require students to have a wide range of skills: reading, writing, and math, but also digital literacy and collaborative problem-solving. Yet, today’s educational systems still require children to learn through rote memorization and a rigid, teacher-centered pedagogy, neither preparing students to think critically or follow their innate curiosity.

An abundance of information is already out there. Educators can instead focus on encouraging students to learn how to learn. By asking questions and seeking answers. By debating, discussing, and synthesizing new information with old. By evaluating information for accuracy and recognizing bias. Instead of being the purveyor of knowledge and wisdom, an educator can try to model what lifelong learning looks like by actively participating alongside students in the search for knowledge.

In addition, what if educators gave young learners ample opportunities to resolve practical, real-world problems? What if they were a source of encouragement, experience, and support rather than solely a source of knowledge? What if, instead of answering questions, adults posed questions or, even better, solicited them? When a seven-year-old asks, “Why does it rain?” what if we avoid reciting a series of steps about how precipitation occurs? Instead, what if they were challenged to explore the question with their peers, using technology to investigate and share ideas? The answers to their questions are out there already, in hundreds of digital locations, explained and shown in many different ways. In exploring answers together, children experience valuable opportunities to build critical thinking skills, tap into their creativity, and practice collaboration. This adult-child relationship also imparts a critically important idea to children – the idea that they have, within themselves, the wherewithal both to navigate the world around them and to learn whenever and wherever learning is possible, even when an expert adult isn’t in the room.  

A New Objective for Learning: Digital Citizenship

Our aspiration must be to reform, upgrade and enlarge our education system - and to make it relevant to 21st-century realities of the digital economy, genomics, robotics, and automation.

~ Ram Nath Kovind, Former President of India

Digital citizenship is defined as being able to use technology in responsible ways while engaging and navigating online environments. The goal of digital citizenship, according to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is to “create thoughtful, empathetic digital citizens who can wrestle with the important ethical questions at the intersection of technology and humanity.” To do this, young learners need to be allowed and taught to use technology as an integral learning tool. They need to be shown how to engage with an online community respectfully and thoughtfully, as well as how to navigate the endless universe of information to find answers to their questions and then assess whether those answers are accurate, reliable, and valid. 

As instructional designers for Prenda, we are metaphorically ripping out the pages of the long-accepted teaching methodology and, instead, seeking to empower students to become confident digital citizens and eager learners. We have embraced a philosophy that students can ask good questions, investigate possible solutions, and then forge new connected learning pathways based on their unique curiosity and interests. 

What does this look like? First, it involves empowering students to use technology to reach their own learning goals - goals they have set. It means helping them recognize what it means to act responsibly when they are online. It means using curated online resources and then modeling how to critically read and evaluate them. It means letting students explore how to use technology to solve problems, answer questions, create, and invent. It means encouraging children to see technology as a portal to the world beyond themselves - a place to gain new perspectives, share their own, and appreciate and understand the world's beautiful diversity. 

Simultaneously, we want to provide frameworks that help strengthen a child’s ability and confidence to ask questions and then eagerly dive into the vast pool of answers. It also means permitting students to be “wrong” and helping them understand that “failing” is an expected and sometimes necessary stop on the road to success and enlightenment. Finally, it means letting them set their own pace, follow their curiosities, and find meaningful connections between their learning and the world around them. Especially for our older students, who may have been already shaped by the learning model we believe to be outdated, this approach is often called “gradual release,” meaning that we realize the need to foster these skills and allow students to gradually grow into curious and confident learners. 

In other words, as Mr. Keating so passionately asserted, we aspire to empower every student at Prenda to learn to think for themselves ... again.