I don’t know if you ever listen to Jeff Ikler’s Getting Unstuck, Cultivating Curiosity podcast. If not, your loss. He recently spoke with Dr. Susan Engel who is so curious about curiosity that she does research into it. Not the least into when and how we lose it – because we are all born with tons of curiosity.
Did you read Curious George to your children – or perhaps had it read to you back in your childhood? Curious George, the cute chimpanzee, always has to be rescued by the man in the yellow hat because his curiosity leads him into all kinds of trouble. Apologies are often given by this yellow-hatted friend.
My Danish childhood “canon” included a song where, beside the headline to this piece, one of the lines was “why don’t lions eat strawberries?” The song ended with “Why am I not allowed to play? Why does my butt hurt? I will never ask stupid questions again.”
There are many ways to kill a curious cat.
Fortunately, that was not my childhood.
My childhood included hearing this very old story:
In a physics class exam, the students were asked how using a barometer, they would figure out the height of a skyscraper.
One of the students answered that he would go to the top of the skyscraper, toss out the barometer, clock how long it would take for it to hit the ground, and then using [enter proper formula here; it’s been a while since I had a physics class but somewhere G=9.81 needs to be used] he could calculate the height of the skyscraper.
The answer was technically correct, it did involve using physics, but it was not the answer the professor was looking for. The professor decided to call in the student as he clearly knew his stuff – but what to make of his answer?
“You know this was not what we were looking for, right?” the professor asked when the student was before him. “Sure, the student answered, but that was boring.” And then he had a chance to show on the blackboard what the boring solution was supposed to look like. “Well,” the professor said, “might you have other solutions?”
“I could tie a string to the barometer, hoist it out from the top of the skyscraper, and measure the length of the string. Or measure the length of the shadow of the skyscraper and the length of an object I knew the size of and then calculate the relative height. Or I could measure the height of the barometer, walk up the staircase and mark the wall for every height of a barometer, count the marks, and multiply. But personally, I would offer the barometer to the janitor if he would tell me the height of the building.”
Personally, I like the student’s preferred solution. It is very simple, and, in that, it fulfills Occam’s razor principle in science that I hope you are curious enough to look up if you don’t already know it. The way I was told the story, the student was Niels Bohr, later Nobel laureate in physics – which might tell you how old the story is (but not whether it necessarily is all true.)
Yet, it is true that I was told the story this way, and 30 years later when I was wondering how tall the redwood trees in my backyard were, I took out a measuring tape and measured the length of the shadow of the tallest tree as if fell across the lawn, the length of the shadow of a one-foot ruler, and concluded that the tree was appr 90 feet tall.
I could tell you that my father was the genius in my story for instilling that kind of curiosity, but he probably learned from the best:
My grandfather was an avid fly-fisher, and he had some very nice but fragile rods that his young sons were not to touch. One day my father not only touched one of them; he broke it. And my grandfather set him down, looked at him, and earnestly asked him why he did that? What was the thinking that let him to not only defy his father’s wish but break the thing? And when my father went on to break the second rod, the same thing happened. Not a hint of doom; only curiosity.
As you can imagine, I got that story from the perpetrator himself who to that day, many decades later, couldn’t answer the question of why he broke his father’s fishing rods. I don’t know if my father told me the story because – as I had studied psychology – he hoped I could ask the right questions to get the answer out of him. It clearly weighed on his mind that he had done a thing like that. Perhaps 70 years of pondering is punishment enough?
My takeaway has been that being really curious about how our kids think keeps the kids curious. And the best thing we can do for them is not to give them answers to the questions they ask but to validate that it is OK to ask questions. And then guide them to find the answers from verifiable sources.
Having mentioned the lion-strawberry song, I went to the source of all knowledge, the www, and recognized the picture as the cover of a CD I had seen somewhere around. So, I asked my daughter if she remembered the song. She did, vaguely, and I questioned her on what impact it could have had on her? Her memory was that that she had gotten an answer to most of the questions she asked (there are some advantages to being a fountain of useless knowledge,) and when I didn’t have an answer, I would say so, and together we would find an answer. Notice: an answer, not the answer.
Her takeaway was that if an adult can answer “enough” questions, there is no threat to their ego if some questions don’t have a ready answer but need to be researched. She never had a problem with answering “I don’t know, let’s find out” herself and is still amply curious.
I don’t know if teachers may feel threatened by students’ questions. I know that a 5th-grade teacher admitted that she hated teaching math because it was not her own forte as so much of her education was child psychology and development, not subject matter math. Come 6th grade the math teachers had math as their majors. Perhaps elementary school teachers should be subject matter experts as well? (It is possible to have more than one teacher, you know. Even in elementary school.)
But any or all these remedies will be of little value if the real motivation behind the adult thinking is that “yours is not to reason why…”