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Protecting the Spark of Curiosity
By Wendy Priesnitz

Protecting the Spark of Curiosity

A quote by Sir Ken Robinson, which was apparently from one of his TED talks, was recently circulating on social media. It read: “If you can light the spark of curiosity in a child, they will learn without any further assistance.” Great stuff! Or is it?

Curiosity is most definitely a catalyst for learning. The problem that I have with Robinson’s quote is that children are born with that spark already lit. They come out of the womb curious and interested in exploring and making sense of their world – that is, they are intrinsically motivated to learn.

Children's curiosity spark was lit at birth, so our task is not to light it, but to keep it from burning out.

In other articles and in my book Challenging Assumptions in Education, I have quoted psychologist Alison Gopnik (author of The Philosophical Baby and The Scientist in the Crib) who demonstrates how infants, right from the moment of birth (and probably even before that), have a drive for discovery and experimentation, curiously approaching life like little travelers, enthralled by every aspect of their environments. It’s a chain reaction: When we’re curious about something, our imagination gets fired up, and we’re curious to know more.

So our task as adults is not to light the spark, but to keep it from burning out. To do that requires our trust in the innate human quality of curiosity as a means of growth – in a child’s intrinsic motivation to learn. Unfortunately, finding and maintaining that level of trust is difficult for those of us who weren’t ourselves trusted to learn via our own curiosity and interest. And that’s difficult, given the way our schools are set up. Most schools are, in fact, structured to shut down curiosity. Where curiosity leads is a uniquely individual thing, and often in conflict with what curriculum writers dictate and test makers measure. In the standardized, competitive, results-focused environment of schools, there just isn’t time to deviate from the curriculum.

In some cases, this situation arises out of simple and unthinking adult arrogance; in others, there is a true belief that adults must extrinsically motivate kids or else they will not learn; and in others, it's about financially supporting the educational industry rather than helping children learn.

But there’s more that I find wrong with that Robinson quote. It seems to me that he (along with many other educators) has the whole thing backwards. After suggesting that a child’s curiosity must be sparked by an adult, he dismisses the need for further adult assistance. But why would we even want kids to learn without our assistance? Why would they not want to have our help and guidance available when they need it?

If we assume that our children are already curious without needing to create that in them (or to teach them how to learn as others often suggest), then we can respectfully explore the world alongside them, providing assistance as appropriate but always modeling self-directed learning.

So maybe this quote is a better one: “If you can respect, trust, and protect a child’s curiosity, they will learn from the world, with your assistance when they ask for it.”

Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's founder and editor, the author of thirteen books, a veteran unschooling advocate, and the mother of two adult daughters who learned without school in the 1970s and '80s. You can learn more about her on her website.

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