Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.

Samuel Johnson

We’re all, to some extent, naturally curious – we long to unpick out that which is mysterious, troublesome and uncertain. That’s not to say we’re all equally curious about everything. We tend to be particularly incurious about what is settled, quotidian and neatly tied off. The novelist, Anatole France thought that, “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds for the purpose of satisfying it afterwards.” I think this is broadly true. A teacher unable to awaken the curiosity of his students is a poor thing indeed. We all strive to make the content we teach as remarkable and intriguing as may be.

Sometimes we fail. We buckle under the pressure to teach to a test of satisfy a ticklist and end up with rooms full of apathy. But we strive.

One neat little trick for “awakening the natural curiosity of young minds” is the knowledge gap. I recently read The Wonders of the Solar System by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen. When discussing Saturn’s rings they begin by asking, “Have you ever wondered what the rings of Saturn are made of?” I had wondered! And I wanted to know! By the end of the chapter it turned out that they’re made of dust. Ice covered dust.

By the end of the chapter it turned out that they’re made of dust. Ice covered dust. My knowledge of Saturn’s rings had been woefully inadequate. If they’d begun by baldly proclaiming this fact I may well not have absorbed it. But by pointing what I didn’t know, my ccuriosity was piqued. This kind of teaching is akin to digging a pit, filling it with the stuff we want children to learn, covering it with leaves and then beckoning them to follow us. Before they know it, and despite themselves, they want to satisfy their awakened curiosity.

But can you teach curiosity? No, of course you bloody can’t. They already are. Teaching children to be curious is like teaching cats to grow whiskers: utterly redundant. Despite the efforts of those determined to focus education on developing various ephemeral and innate qualities, curiosity is a tool at our disposal rather than suitable content to be studied. Instead let’s offer our students the richest diet on offer: knowledge of the world in all its chaotic glory.

But if you’re now curious about curiosity itself I can recommend Ian Leslie‘s book on the subject: Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It.