The Gift of Curiosity

May, 2019 


There is an inevitable tension in education between growth and tradition. We often see this at the institutional level—many schools want to innovate while still retaining connection to longstanding beliefs, for example—but it happens with students as well. As educators, we hope children will grow in their capacity to reason, to act independently, to express creativity, and to take responsibility as they journey through school. At the same time, we want them to retain certain qualities of innocence: an openness to others, a capacity for unreserved joy, a willingness to be vulnerable. As William Wordsworth had it, “The Child is father of the Man,” and one hears the poet urging a school’s graduates not to abandon the delights of earlier times.

One of these delights is curiosity. Research has shown that children may ask 10,000 questions a year before they enter school, and even preschool children ask about 100 questions a day. To engage a child between the ages of two and five is to swim in a sea of “Why?” and “What if?” questions. However, repeated studies on question-asking have demonstrated an inverse relationship between time spent in school and student inquisitiveness; one classic investigation found that as they moved through elementary school, students would ask as few as two questions per 45-minute class period, a far cry from the dozens upon dozens offered up by eager kindergartners. It seems the longer students are in school, the fewer questions they ask.

Now, it may be that as children start to develop an understanding about their world, their need to question diminishes. But this development may also be the result of an institutional practice where children learn that their role at school is to answer questions, not ask them. This is not to say that answers themselves are not important. However, education that does not create sufficient room for student inquiry can not only diminish one of the delights of childhood, but also prohibit schools from fully delivering on their purposes.

Education that does not create sufficient room for student inquiry can not only diminish one of the delights of childhood, but also prohibit schools from fully delivering on their purposes.

Nearly all independent schools claim “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” or “teaching not what but how to think” as a core tenet of their educational mission. Such skills are vital for ongoing learning and responsible democratic citizenship in a dynamic, accelerating, often uncertain world. But the “right answers” must be paired with a disposition to use them effectively and creatively in novel circumstances. We build this disposition when we give our students practice in exercising their curiosity on their own terms under the guidance of a thoughtful, intentional teacher. Those learners who are both encouraged and shown how to ask their own questions become stronger agents of their own learning, deepen their understanding of significant material, and begin to generate original intellectual connections within and across disciplines.

“There is no greater gift to bestow upon students,” claims James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, “than the gift of curiosity.” When we match this gift with critical thinking, we drive a learning revolution in our students, one which serves them well in school and beyond.  At Browning, our mission is to teach boys to answer questions, but also to ask new questions of their own; to solve problems, but also to discover problems for solving; to acquire and appreciate knowledge, but also to animate and activate that knowledge in new ways. None of this can be done without embracing curiosity, one of the delights of childhood and one of the core values of our community.