Reclaim the right to be curious … and learn something


Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog

EL PASO — If curiosity killed the cat, then I am a monkey’s uncle. This sentence implies that I would be surprised and somewhat foolish (monkey’s uncle) to believe that curiosity kills cats … or people. There are some dark sorts of curiosity that could conceivably get a person killed, but as a society, we consider both garden variety curiosity and foolishness as weeds and do our best to eradicate them in children.

At least one of my course syllabi listed as a learning objective “to reclaim the curiosity of a five-year-old.” Five- year-olds have mastered the language enough to want to master the mysteries of the universe, but no one wants to help them.

“Why is the sky blue?” “Because I said.” Why do some people have brown eyes and some have blue eyes?” “Why do dogs bark and cats meow?” “Do storks bring babies?” “Shh. Only monkeys ask why.” “Monkeys can’t talk, can they?” “Stop asking so many questions. NOW.”

What's up? (Raymundo Aguirre/

What's up? (Josie Jimarez-Howard/

By the time students arrived in my classroom they only wanted the answers without asking the questions. And, they didn’t want all the answers even, only the ones that would be on the test. It is no easy task to convince a student to ask questions in a statistics class, even though he or she knows that they will not understand the material otherwise. Students are that afraid of feeling foolish.

I believe, as an educator, it is important to get back to basics, and for me the basics include wanting to know something (curiosity) and a willingness to admit that you don’t already. The sort of passivity we see in students from middle school on through undergraduate classrooms will not solve complex social problems, create new knowledge or art, or discover new scientific principles and applications. An emphasis on rote memorization and multiple choice tests may make our job as educators easier, but it also makes us not real educators, merely herders of sheep. In the real world, sometimes there are several right answers to a problem and sometimes there isn’t a single one.

Once I taught a border demography class for the Center for Lifelong Learning. The room was filled with people who walked with a limp or a cane, who had grey hair, who were with their spouses or no longer had one. It was one of the most exciting and noisy classes I ever taught. These folks had lived, had read, had traveled the world, and they could have cared less what I or anyone else thought about them. They wanted to know, and pressed me for everything that I could possibly say about the subject. They also demanded that I defend what opinions I might offer with facts. They would do their own evaluations, thank you very much. These seniors remembered what it was like to be five and were free to be that way again. But they had also progressed to the stage where just any answer was not acceptable, and it was possible that even though I was a professor, I really didn’t know much more than they did.

When I came back to my quiet classroom where even a tentative question or statement was praiseworthy, I realized that we have to stop what we have been doing right now and make students remember what they were like back when they were five. Let them ask a thousand questions, be noisy and disruptive, cause trouble. That’s where both fun and learning happen, and critical thinking skills begin to form. So, when the next person warns you about curiosity and cats, you can at least say: “but satisfaction brought it back.”

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