Conversation on curiosity

Posted: 2017-08-13 , Modified: 2017-08-13

Tags: education, curiosity, teach_kid, conversation, teaching, learning, values

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A conversation between two characters, I and T.

1 Why curiosity is important

I: I’ve been thinking about curiosity…

T: Would you say, you’ve been curious about curiosity?

I: Lol. I’ve just listened to a TED podcast “From curiosity to discovery.”

T: Tell me about it.

I: According to them, curiosity is the most essential ingredient to scientific discovery. Children are born with curiosity, but

at a certain point, that kind of curiosity starts to disappear…

It’s almost like the more we know about the world, the limits of what’s possible start to crowd in on us.

If you look at the childhoods of great scientists, their role models were people who encouraged curiosity. Adam Savage talked about that. Feynman, for example. Adam himself too: when Adam wanted a racecar for his teddy bear, his dad spent several weeks making one from scratch, starting from no knowledge of how to make one. It was very formative to him. I’m not sure this is exactly “curiosity,” maybe more “itch to make things,” but the itch to make and to find out things are similar that I feel I can group them together.

2 “Teaching” curiosity

T: Is curiosity inherent or taught?

I: There’s a certain amount of curiosity that is ingrained - some people naturally just ask questions. And sometimes they can triumph over suffocating surroundings to become a great scientist, explorer, etc. But definitely having a role model helps.

It really bothers me that no one teaches curiosity.

T: How can you teach curiosity?

I: How can you teach anything that isn’t formulaic? … It’s easier for me to think of things NOT to do. Why people are hurting children’s curiosity.

T: Example?

I: I feel most grown-ups discourage curiosity without meaning to. It’s tragic. Kids often ask questions. That’s a wonderful opportunity for curiosity to grow. But often it’s squished, by…

  1. Dismissing the question. “Don’t ask so many questions.” “Because I said so.” “You’ll understand when you grow up.” Or just simply saying nothing, all the time, until their questioning peters out. Suggesting a question is stupid is poison. Censorship is antithetical to curiosity. (And humor - the “make fun of” kind of humor - can act as censor.) Rather than saying a question is a bad question, suggest that there is a better question to ask.
  2. Answering it in a way that seems to but doesn’t answer the question and makes the kid shut up.
  3. Pretending like you know everything, and BS’ing answers even if you don’t know. Because then the take-away message is: everything has easily-look-upable answers. Give up if there isn’t.As Adam said, this teacher he really admired - Adam would ask a string of questions, and at the end the teacher would say “I don’t know.” At the end of every string of questions is “I don’t know.” Similarly, Feynman’s dad, when asked why the ball in the wagon continued forward when he stopped, said that it’s called inertia but that no one really understands it.On the negative side (for (2) and (3)), two anecdotes come to mind.
    1. (Whole story)

      there was a book that started out with four pictures: first there was a windup toy; then there was an automobile; then there was a boy riding a bicycle; then there was something else. And underneath each picture it said, “What makes it go?”

      I thought, “I know what it is: They’re going to talk about mechanics, how the springs work inside the toy; about chemistry, how the engine of the automobile works; and biology, about how the muscles work.”

      It was the kind of thing my father would have talked about: “What makes it go? Everything goes because the sun is shining.” And then we would have fun discussing it:

      “No, the toy goes because the spring is wound up,” I would say. “How did the spring get wound up?” he would ask.

      “I wound it up.”

      “And how did you get moving?”

      “From eating.”

      “And food grows only because the sun is shining. So it’s because the sun is shining that all these things are moving.” That would get the concept across that motion is simply the transformation of the sun’s power.

      I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, “Energy makes it go.” And for the boy on the bicycle, “Energy makes it go.” For everything, “Energy makes it go.”

      Now that doesn’t mean anything. Suppose it’s “Wakalixes.” That’s the general principle: “Wakalixes makes it go.” There’s no knowledge coming in. The child doesn’t learn anything; it’s just a word!

    2. Where babies come from, p. 214 of Trefethen’s index cards

People bemoan why students don’t ask more questions in class. But often people are taught out of asking questions. (3) is very important. If kids don’t feel that adults - their role models - can say “I don’t know”, will they learn to say those words? (On the subject of not knowing, here’s a wonderful Freakonomics podcast.)

T: Is curiosity enough in itself? Is it some pure kind of drive that will Take You Places, as long as those pesky grown-ups don’t drag you down?

I: No. Kids have a natural drive to do. And that’s great. The best thing a teacher can do is channel that drive. Kids have a lot of energy, but they don’t know how to expend it in the right ways. I think that when kids grow up, they learn what are valuable things to do - but they also have less intrinsic energy (face it, kids are more energetic!).

An example. This is from a video promoting Montessori education. (I lost the link.) Basically it said that students can do so much powered by their natural curiosity, etc. when they are free to explore. The example it gave was a student who, after doing a long division problem, wasn’t satisfied, and so decided to spend the rest of the afternoon extending the long division sign, writing a bunch of random digits after the dividend, and continuing to divide.

This strikes me as bad example: analogical to the “energy” anecdote: you think something is being taught, but not really!

What would be great at this point is that someone directed the child’s natural interest into something that does lead interesting places. One doesn’t have to look far: in this case, for example, you could pose the problems of dividing 1 by various numbers (7, 13, 17, etc. - there are interesting repeating patterns). Shift the kid’s focus from the pleasures of division to looking for patterns that open the door to some deep mathematics.

Returning to what I said, “Kids have a lot of energy, but they don’t know how to expend it in the right ways.” Actually, I realize this can be interpreted in a evil way! I think the above example gives the interpretation I want. You have to have the student’s original intention in mind, not replace it. That’s really hard, and I chose an example where it was easy.

Curiosity is great, freedom to explore is great, but it’s easy to romanticize. The problem is that some questions are simply less deep. Asking the right questions is half the battle of science! Yes, you should ask questions, but what are the right questions to ask?

Now that I’ve gone on this rant, I’m seeing this kind of thing everywhere. Curiosity is, essentially, good taste. When teaching any subject, you want a student not just to be able to copy tasks associated with that subject by rote, but understand what is valuable about that subject, what is good work in that subject. Curiosity is related to this because curiosity is a (the) road to good work in science (other subjects have different drives that form their roads). (Every subject is a superpower.) Similarly, for writing, you don’t write well by copying, you write it by reading, thinking This is good writing! and wanting to write stuff that tickles your aesthetics like the writing you admire.

Now this is hard. What’s the line between imposing one’s tastes on another to be copied, and actually getting someone to appreciate? It takes a bit of time and space. I often felt in English class that I was supposed to like certain literature - I couldn’t make the judgment call myself - I had to write essays on how a writer conveys deep things through expert use of metaphorical language, etc. There was a creative writing class that didn’t work for me because I felt like the teacher was saying “this is good writing” about the stories we read, while our writing wasn’t good because it lacked something that good writing had, that he didn’t make clear.

T: You’re being harsh. A bad student shouldn’t blame the teacher. I think you were just sour that the teacher didn’t like your writing.

Anyway, you yourself thought that it sucked, some time afterwards, right? And the feeling that one’s work is bad is a indication that one has developed some taste (as you hyperlinked above). So you did learn something.

I: We need to learn to love things. It doesn’t just happen by itself. (This is a quote from Bill D. in A Jane Austen Education talking about a scene in Northanger Abbey.) There’s two things this is saying.

  1. We need (to learn) (to love things): We can’t love things automatically; we need to learn to love.
  2. We need to (learn to love things): We can’t get by in life without loving things. (And to love things we need to learn, see 1.)

What does it mean to love something like science? To love well, you need good taste (seemingly paradoxical, a kind of discrimination). Although love - and by connection, taste - needs to be taught, it also needs to come from yourself. Can love not come from deep down in your soul? There isn’t a contradiction between curiosity - and the essence of taste - needing to come from yourself, and you still needing to learn taste through guidance. But what I was trying to say before is that something in the student needs to be the starting point, rather than the teacher imposing… OK, this isn’t too coherent, maybe the point is the teacher didn’t make me love writing, but I was also too full of air at the time.

Let me clarify a distinction I’m making. Curiosity is a drive, a drive to explore what’s interesting. Taste is a sense of what’s interesting. “Curiosity without taste is blind.”

T: What is taste without curiosity?

I: … a critic?

T: Let’s get back to “teaching” curiosity. It sounds like you need expert tutors (or tutors who are pedagogically experts in their fields). Or at least one polymath. After all, you only knew the division example because you’re a math person. Can you give an example for chemistry? Biology? History?


T: So then is what you’re saying useless? What’s a non-polymath parent to do?

I: Enter books.

T: Do explain.

3 “Learning” curiosity?

I: There are many wonderful books out there that show you the beauty of a field. That get lots of questions spinning in your head. For CS, for instance, I can think of a bunch: Godel Escher Bach (Douglas Hofstadter), Hackers (Stephen Levy), The Information (James Gleick), Quantum computing since Democritus (Scott Aaronson),… I’m less well read in other subjects, but it’s easier in the Internet age to search around to find books that actually get your brain cells moving, rather than making you feel like you’ve learned stuff. (Start with online lists…) (Some prodigies can just dive into very technical books because they already, through some combination of instinct and learning, already have taste. But for the rest of us!) Although knowing the distinction between these books takes some taste as well… meta-taste? (There are various criteria: do they just give facts, or do they ask questions? Do they say how things were discovered? Etc.) A lot of these kinds of books, I wish I’d read earlier!

The biggest regret of my childhood is still not having read enough. Sure, teachers encourage us to read (we get free pizza!). But I mostly read the typical children’s books. Not books on momentous scientific discoveries and theories, books with challenging philosophies (because you don’t read books simply to confirm your beliefs!)… Adults don’t have time to guide their children’s curiosity all the time. So they can guide them towards books. But not just typical children’s books, because that would be like the long division story, and the energy story - expending mental effort without taking you very far, you know?

(I realize I’ve been saying the neutral word “guide” a lot. Where in the spectrum of “place in one’s field of vision” vs. “force” do I really mean?)

When I’m a parent, I’ll make sure that my house’s shelves (whether physical or virtual) are stocked with good books on every subject.

(Of course, in this age good stuff isn’t all in books anymore, there are blogs, videos, etc.)

T: I think you’ve barely scratched the surface here! You get book-smarts that way. You’re biased coming from a mathematical perspective, where you can learn lots of stuff from books.

  1. You’re completely ignoring the HANDS-ON IMPERATIVE. Saying you learn curiosity from books is like, well, saying you gain muscles by watching exercise videos. Plus, for other subjects, the analogue of reading books might be something different: watching the Olympics. Going to art museums (maybe not the best example, because I think I need a book to understand the significance of art!). And so forth.
  2. You said that curiosity has to come from within. But now you’re saying it’s coming from without?


  1. You’re right, books are just a place to start. It’s like… if you read too much without doing anything, then you’re similar to the person who can understand a language without speaking it, and find it hard to actually start learning to speak it.
  2. It would be more appropriate to say you learn taste from books. It’s like the fire that keeps curiosity going.

T: There’s “asking questions” - curiosity - and “being able to do things” - acting on it. (Wasn’t there a quote from the talk - “science is creativity acted upon”?) Books give knowledge. It hadn’t occurred to me so much that they are vital to asking questions.

But you’ve made things seem too procedural. Read books! It’s very goal-oriented, checklist-oriented. Goal-orientation is the opposite of curiosity. Curiosity is about following a winding road to get to the answer. The journey, not the destination, all that jazz. Persisting even when nothing seems to be getting answered.

But then one can talk endlessly and vaguely about “how to do things”. Step by step is the best answer I can think of. You have curiosity on one hand, a stockpile of knowledge (books) on the other. You start with, maybe, asking a little question and either looking it up or trying to answer it another way… and then you do something more…

I: You know, this is also linked in my mind to being interested in things, and not being bored. Some people can always find something to entertain themselves with. It’s okay to be bored, but it’s good to have a way to not be bored, you know? For example, if you’re a good observer, you can enjoy observing the people around you while you’re waiting. If for some reason you’re forced to sit through a TV drama (God forbid!) you can make a mental list of TV tropes. Etc. Being curious is linked to finding things to occupy your mind with (and I don’t mean anxiety). The ending of curiosity is in a sense the ending of thought.

Now that I’ve gotten started, there’s so much to say. It’s related to this rant about why I love the hacker ethic that’s been brewing in my head for some time.

T: A rant about why you love it?

I: Well, it’s also a rant against why society seems at odds with those values.

T: Let’s do that another post.

4 On being more curious

I: What really bothers me is that I feel like I want to be more curious, but feel like I can’t.

T: On what level do you want to be more curious? There’s two kinds of want.

  1. You just want the result. (Everyone wants to be smart.)
  2. You enjoy the journey. (Some people like learning.)

I: Curiosity is about enjoying the journey. Sure it’s about wanting to find out answers, but it’s more about enjoying asking the questions, enjoying the journey. (They talked about this in the TED talk too. Many scientific discoveries come about by asking tangential questions.)

T: I think your mind is full of the concept of curiosity right now. But there are other very natural “drives” that are universally useful. What are they?


Curiosity, wanting to find things out, enjoying the process of finding things out, seeing what will happen. Making things. Imagination. Expressing oneself (like making art). Maybe there’s more. That’s what I can think of for now.

T: What about “wanting to win (competing)”? What about “helping other people”?

I: Helping is a good one. Competition seems to me a much less innocent drive than the others. In fact, people use competition in order to get kids to do things. Math competitions, for example, to get them to like math. It’s not bad. But if you want a kid to like math, you should primarily get them curious about it. (Gamification, when badly done, is similar to competition. When it’s well done it excites those drives.)

Competition isn’t basic, pure. It supplants the other drives. It’s like… imitation motivation. Fool’s gold.

T: Let’s go back to you “wanting to be more curious”. Are you saying you want more curiosity, or better taste? That you’re feeling suppressed by society? but you’re grown up, and shouldn’t feel the pressures that you say (geared towards kids). I think that a person’s critique of society often holds, in between the lines, a person’s critique of emself. Like here, you’re talking about how people should let kids be more curious, or the various obstacles to it, and finally what you’re saying is that you want to be more curious.

Again, in what sense do you want to be more curious? Are you saying that you want to “rebound” to some previous level of curiosity? Or do you just want more, the more the better? And do these questions go away if you DO stuff rather than talk about it? I have found that it’s easy to keep asking questions like “How do I…?” and then meta-questions like “How do I even learn how to…?” People respond to those questions, often with, Just do it. Is that the same as the questions that come from curiosity? Or are these different because they’re goal-oriented questions? What do you mean by “goal-orientation”? Is that answer “Just do it” guilty of a sin against curiosity? Isn’t the very tenet of curiosity that you do things, rather than talk about them like we’re doing now?

Everyone has the tools to be curious. You don’t have to be curious about big things, you can start by being curious about little things. Little things can be deep.

Curiosity is one of several drives like you said. Do you want max out on everything? Aren’t they somewhat contradictory? These drives are similar in that they’re about the process/journey - I think that’s what you mean when you say they’re pure. But “making things” as a drive is inherently more goal-oriented than curiosity, because it envisions a final product, for instance. Should we accept our individual balance of these four things?

I:do want to be more curious. I think that’s what I admire about these great scientists. I think that as a whole, we can be more curious as a society.

We don’t have a shortcut to maxing out. Perhaps that’s a lame answer. Curiosity grows from practice, just like stamina grows from training.

Well, it’s nearing the end of our dialogue and I don’t all the answers, much less a conclusion.

T: It’s about the journey, remember?