Curiosity and education

Professor Chris Morash, who is Vice-Provost of Trinity College Dublin, made an interesting observation when interviewed for a recent article in the Irish Times: that the Irish secondary school examination system ‘is dampening students’ innate curiosity and leading to a culture of dependency among students on class notes and exam expectations.’ The question this raises is a profound one for educators: are we making students adopt a gaming approach (guessing what those examining them will want them to say), or are we stimulating their minds?

There has been lots of valuable research into curiosity. We know for example that the brain reacts in a particular way to heightened curiosity, so that information is processed more effectively and retained better. Curiosity is also a vital tool in discovery, leading for example to better diagnosis in medicine.

Yet we find all too often that education systems set out to kill curiosity and focus the student instead on securing a functionally efficient outcome to examinations.

I was given an illustration of this a few years ago when I was asked to join an event for secondary school students in Dublin. At that time the world’s airline travel had been thrown into chaos by the 2010 eruptions of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. Some of the young people I was talking with told me they had asked to discuss this at school and were told by their teacher that it would be a waste of time because the eruptions had occurred too late to be included in that year’s Leaving Certificate [final school] exams. I don’t believe that I have ever heard a better reason for a total reform of the system.

It is time to remind ourselves that an education that shuts out curiosity is not an education at all.

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10 Comments on “Curiosity and education”


  1. Our students are graded on the basis of what is examinable and on their competence over a pre-selected range of actions or responses. Put like that, the risk of damage is obvious. In reality, a great deal depends on how things are taught. The worst case (this happened to my daughter) is when the pupil is told that their way of carrying out a task in arithmetic is wrong, because it differs from the one prescribed, even though it gives the right answer.

    I went to an excellent school, with knowledgeable and devoted teachers. Nonetheless, going to university, and discovering that I was allowed to ask anything whether or not it was in some syllabus, was a liberation.

    Given the extreme importance of grades, what’s the answer?

  2. Greg Foley Says:

    I too have noticed a lack of curiosity in my undergraduate students but I’ve noticed the same lack of curiosity even in PhD students and fellow academics who seem to have no interest in any topic beyond their own narrow area of specialisation.

    I’m not sure we can blame all of this on the education system. Maybe genuine intellectual curiosity is a rare thing.

  3. Tim Kovar Says:

    I will go so far as to say that the Irish secondary school system is a hindrance to the development of society. I’ve been a third level lecturer for 25 years and I’ve seen the experiences of my own sons. The Leaving Certificate structure stunts the creativity and individuality of students. In addition, the CAO system prevents good students from enrolling in an appropriate course. At the same time, 3rd level institutions create false scarcity by offering too many stand alone degree programs rather than a broad enrollment with the opportunity to specialise as students develop and learn their own strengths and interests.
    These deficiencies are clear from the excessive drop out rates across Irish 3rd level. Those students then have to waste months before they can enroll in a different program, or they give up and leave 3rd level.
    I could go on, but the lack of action from the relevant stakeholders is soul crushing. I know TCD and DCU have made some moves to vary their structures, but not enough.

    • Greg Foley Says:

      An awful lot of un-evidenced statements here…

      Drop out rates in Irish universities are actually low by international standards. IoTs do have a problem in courses where the entry points are low. (The HEA have produced numerous reports on this – low points is by far the best predictor of non-completion)

      Incidentally, there is no evidence that the size of the intake to a programme is a major driver of CAO points inflation. Far more important factors are the herd mentality and the prestige of the institution.

      As for blaming all the woes of the education system of the Leaving/CAO, we in the third level sector need to look at ourselves. We have four years to work with our students and if they don’t emerge from college with the knowledge, skills and attitude that we would like them to have, then it is partly our fault.

      As for the broader entry thing, all you are doing there is postponing the inevitable decision to specialise. Unless an institution has unlimited capacity in all its programmes, it will have to allocate places on a competitive basis. You are therefore risking creating a pressure cooker atmosphere in which students who might already be struggling with the transition to third level might now be involved in a whole new rat race, It would be far better to put more resources into careers counselling at second level.

  4. Vince Says:

    Ha, I bet you Crtl-C that volcano.

  5. Mark Wallace Says:

    It’s not only secondary schools. The disciplinarization that is so central to contemporary academia doesn’t allow for much creativity or curiosity where it involves crossing over into other disciplines. Perhaps the old humanist scholars were better placed to take advantage of curiosity and range widely over various fields of thought.

  6. Anna Notaro Says:

    I have always been more fascinated by words rather than numbers, however when confronted with the first rudimentary knowledge of arithmetic in primary school, I developed a persistent curiosity, which for my teacher must have taken the form of pestering, I wanted to know what was the very ‘last’ number, my teacher had no answer so she did what adults often resort to when dealing with inquisitive children, she dismissed my persistent enquiring in front of the whole class, this only made my innate shyness worse but also taught me that curiosity is not always about finding answers, but exploring.
    In later years, my love for words helped me to define the concept and understand it better, and again the school I attended at the time, what in Italian is known as Lyceum (where classics and humanities subjects are most studied) played a key role. I learned that the word curiosity, the intellectual enquiry the Romans called ‘curiositas’, is associated with the irregular form of the Latin verb cura, which can mean worry or care about or cure and that the closest in meaning is inquisitive, which also has a Latin root: quaere, to seek. All this confirmed the intuition I had in primary school, curiosity is an exploration, it is about asking questions (also from quaere). St Augustin famously noted that sin proceeds from three sources: pride, lust, and curiositas, for him curiosity was intellectual pride and a delight in meaningless spectacle that diverts one from the truth. Curiosity can be dangerous, it leads on to perilous paths, the young woman who opens the forbidden door in the Bluebeard fairy tale has served as a perfect example for generation of children, and yet on the back of my mind I still ask myself sometimes, is there such a thing as a very last number…

  7. John Heffernan Says:

    As an immigrant teacher in central Virginia, my eyes have been really opened to how spoonfed Irish students for the Leaving exams. I have moved to Albemarle County where there is a culture of risk-taking and innovation https://www.edutopia.org/school/albemarle-county-public-schools .

    There is a philosophy governing what we do here, not like back in Ireland, where it is driven more by let us get more A1s than the school down the road and we might get in the paper or even on the RTE news.

    Within a county, the size of Waterford it surpasses anything nationwide in Ireland with different programmes to allow students to be creative. This is at all levels within the k-12 grades. We have maker spaces in nearly all libraries. Entrepreneur projects at all ages and abilities are occurring all the time. We have Science Academies, successful Art programmes and innovative learning classes in the school I work that has changed the way I have looked at innovation within schools.

    Like a footballer playing Champions League one season and in the doldrums of League Two the next, it is only when you step away and take off the green jersey, you realise how behind we are when you see how other people play the same game. I admit that Albemarle is not your typical US school district but it is hard to compare like to like with an ETB in Ireland.

    Feel free to come have a look for yourselves. There are loads of reports online about Albemarle.

    Googling for another link on Pam Moran our superintendent.I came across this comment from a private Google+ post by Pam which I can’t share but have posted one remark of hers from the Tipp Institute ICTedu conference from 2013

    ” One young (Irish) man responded to the question “how would you change school” with a response of “more freedom – freedom to learn what I’d like to learn.” It struck me that we’ve always had two curricula – that of the adults who want to make sure children learn what they need to survive as adults and that of children who are curious and interested in learning about and how to do things not on the adults’ lists. How do we begin to engage in an interface of those two curricula? How do we know what children want to learn if we don’t ask and then listen? How do we provide opportunities for social discourse across generations? +Ira Socol spoke at the end to briefly comment upon the power of young people to become the learners we all desire them to be when given opportunities to learn that support choice, comfort, interactivity, connectivity, tolerance, physical making, problems to solve and projects to do.


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