25 Feb 2015

When my children were little, I remember watching my wife sitting with one of them in her lap and flipping through the pages of a book. My child would point to a picture in the book and ask, “What’s that?” My wife would reply, “A cow,” then turn the page. With each turning of the page, my child would repeat the process by pointing and asking, and my wife would complete it by answering and turning the page again. Often, the picture would be of the same thing, in this case a cow. This process of repeating the same question and the same answer over and over again confounded me. Why didn’t my child just learn the first time?

Some time after one of those episodes, we were taking a family trip across the country, driving from Florida to Iowa and then to California. I don’t recall in which state it happened, but I remember my son pointing at a real cow standing in a pasture and exclaiming, “It’s a cow, a cow!” Having discovered his first real cow after only seeing them drawn or pictured in a book brought joy radiating from his face. His eyes were big like saucers. His smile ran from ear to ear. He was glowing. This expressiveness continued with every new discovery: a horse, the color purple, a tractor-trailer. It continued, even as he grew older, with new discoveries: an oak tree, a swallow, a turkey vulture. It continues even now, with my oldest, who is a freshman in college. He calls me weekly to tell me about what he is reading and discussing: “Dad, we read Plato’s Meno this week. Socrates was discussing the definition of virtue, and my classmates and I were discussing it as well. Do you think virtue can be defined as…?”

My own education experience was so very different from my son’s. Most of my classmates, including me at times, were bored with learning. If we enjoyed going to school, it was because we enjoyed seeing our friends and maybe a certain teacher here and there. Sometimes we enjoyed a specific subject, but rarely did I meet someone with the same intense level of curiosity as my son and some of the children in our homeschooling group. I began wondering if these children were naturally curious; or was curiosity somehow created in them?

My initial instinct was to think they must be special—naturally curious. Then, thinking further, I decided that curiosity had been created in them. There were too many different children among the homeschoolers I knew. I’ve finally concluded, though, that the answer to both questions is no. What I’ve come to realize is that all children are born with a natural inquisitiveness. They are all filled with questions that constantly flow out of them and they are always ready to point and ask, “What’s that?” It wasn’t the different child who was curious or the child who had been taught to be curious who was curious. Every child demonstrated this curiosity. So what happened to me and my classmates?

If every child is born with that natural inquisitiveness, those who are no longer demonstrating it must have had it taken from them. This, I believe, explains why the curious children were so numerous among the homeschoolers I knew. When a child is cooped up in a classroom, assigned busy work and forced to complete worksheet after worksheet, it can deaden the desire to know. There is, moreover, something stultifying about the way many children are taught new information in modern schools.

The young child is naturally armed and loaded with questions as ammunition. “What’s that?” or “How does it work?” or “Why?” and any other number of questions. And we respond, answering the questions they’ve asked. As they get older, learning changes from an act of discovery, by which they discover the answers to their questions by comparing and concluding, to an act of imposition, by which they are told what to know and when to know it, whether or not the answers they hear are to questions they’ve asked.

These children are retrained so that they no longer think of learning as an act of discovery, but rather as the time during which a teacher lectures to them and gives them answers they aren’t asking for, then gives them busy work and worksheets. When learning becomes so unnatural to them, it stultifies and deadens the curiosity that so enamored them previously. The good teacher, however, is aware of this (at least subconsciously if not consciously) and is able to conduct the learning experience in such a way that he or she provokes the questions he or she needs to answer, thereby avoiding the imposition of new information and cultivating the discovery of new ideas. These are the teachers that my classmates and I would have described as our favorites. They are also the reason why we would generally have only identified one subject as a favorite rather than all of the subjects.

The homeschooling parent can cultivate this kind of learning experience. The typical schoolteacher is limited by the nature of the school classroom and its goals. The environmental difference explains why I find far more curious children among homeschoolers of all ages than I ever remembered from my own education experience.

One last observation: curious children can remain curious in all subjects, even those they may not like or that do not come easily to them. They can do this if we are willing to provoke questions from them, as the good teacher does. We do this most easily by modeling the process back to them. Our children ask questions about everything else, so we ask questions about this subject. Rather than waiting for them to ask, we simply ask the questions. With some practice, we can discover the right questions that will lead our children to new questions, and their curiosity is again inflamed.

It seems the strange case of the curious child is not so strange after all. It may have been strange to us because of the circumstances of our education. It does not, however, have to remain strange. Curiosity is not so much a trait that different children are born with, nor is it so much a trait that we create in some children. Rather, it is a trait that all children are born with and that we can nurture and cultivate. As we learn how to nurture and cultivate curiosity, the strange case of the curious child may become the strange case of the incurious child. 

Matt Bianco, a homeschooling dad of three, lives near Pinehurst, NC. He and his family use Classical Conversations for their homeschooling curriculum and community and have graduated their oldest. Matt is married to his altogether lovely high school sweetheart, Patty.