Whatever happened to the curious ones?

Picture of Miriam at the ChipLit launch party

This month, mm* has the honour of sponsoring the ChipLit Fest, an annual occasion where people gather from near and far to share in the joy of reading, relish the power of the written word and foster a love for literature and learning. Our sponsorship has made us wonder why events like this are quite so rare. And why, in the wider world, our natural curiosity doesn’t come quite so naturally.

Our Copywriter, Miriam Thomas, reflects on the curious case of curiosity, asking the questions: when – and why – we lost it and, more importantly, what we can do to rediscover it.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

We all have some recollection – no matter how distant it might seem – of seeing the world differently. Of being in awe of the simple things – the splash of a puddle, the crunch of Autumn leaves, the first sight of a rainbow.

In our infancy, when everything’s new, there’s a wonder in the world which seems – just as that rainbow – to fade over time.

Is it nature or nurture?

Arguably, it’s natural that our curiosity fades as we get older. After all, what started off as new can’t stay that way forever. The novelty inevitably wears off. But I think there’s something else at play, too. 

As children – if we’re lucky enough – we’re given the stimuli to paint our own blank canvas with the colours, shapes and indecipherable marks unique to us. We’re encouraged to explore, to make mistakes. Because that’s how we learn.

Words inspire wonder

For me, words have always been a source of great curiosity. It started by being read to a lot in my young childhood, which is why events like the ChipLit Fest still hold such excitement.

In those early days, I was told stories about forests and dragons and woodland animals who could talk, and picnic and wear tweed jackets with elbow patches. And I believed in them. Because my mind’s eye could see them. 

So, what changed? Why did maturity come with myopia? And why did we stop seeing the bigger, brighter, more beautiful picture?

The institutionalisation of intellect

A recent study found that pre-school children aged 14 months to 5 years asked an average of 107 questions per hour, several a minute at its peak. But Susan Engel, author of The Hungry Mind’, and a leading voice when it comes to exploring curiosity in children, found that questioning slows abruptly once children start school. Engel’s research revealed that primary pupils asked between 2 and 5 questions over a two-hour period and, even more worryingly, that questioning stopped altogether as children continued through the school system.

In short, questions – so fundamental to our learning, and the very cornerstone of curiosity – have little to no place in our formal education.

Once we enter the school system, we’re encouraged to answer questions rather than ask them. And not in an exploratory or inquiring way, more in a right or wrong, tick the box way. The inquisitive mind becomes the interrogated mind in an institution that’s driven by results, targets and academic “correctness”. 

The child who’s quietly beavering away is seen as the one doing well, whilst the one with a barrage of questions is assumed to have not quite understood the task. A strange conclusion to draw, given that questions are often designed to gain understanding of a phenomenon at a deeper, more penetrating intellectual level.

Curiosity can seem threatening

It might seem strange that a questioning outlook is frowned upon by the very system that’s there to nurture learning but I think I understand the logic – and I think there’s a sinister side to it.

Now, I’m a self-confessed cynic but bear with me – sometimes cynicism is warranted.

Curiosity is the very thing that forces us to question elements of our own reality. Looking into the unknown forces us to challenge our preconceptions and encourages us to forge a new perspective. 

Is it just me, or does that come with some potentially dangerous territory?

If we challenge our own understanding or – heaven forbid – the understanding of those in authority, we might just realise that what’s “the right answer” or “the wrong answer” is, in fact, not the answer at all.

The question of academic “correctness”

Before becoming a Copywriter, I spent nearly a decade as a Teacher of English in Secondary schools across the UK. And, as well as questioning thousands of students, my time in Education also made me question academia itself.

Formal education, in spite of the rhetoric about being socially inclusive, is predicated on bias. It prioritises attainment over achievement, league tables over learning and competition over curiosity. What we’re taught is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is a direct copy of the societal norms that are evangelised by every other institution we have. School provides a model for institutionalising us.

In fact, the biggest lesson we learn is to stick to the status quo. Because questioning it, or even being curious about the alternative, would not only be a threat to traditional, teacher-led models of pedagogy but would, in fact, call into question all the institutions which keep us ‘in our place’.

The curriculum VS the curious

As a writer and a teacher myself, the place of English in the curriculum is of particular interest. And it poses its own, very unique conundrum. Respected theorists, including Cox and Guillory have long argued that the literary canon is elitist and exclusive by its very nature. The material that school-aged children are exposed to is disproportionately authored by dominant social groups, which again serves to perpetuate particular world views. 

But for me it goes further than this.

Add to the mix the prescriptive criteria that school assessments are based on and we find that the reading material which should be the very fuel of our imagination is, in fact, filtered by two restrictive mechanisms – both the canon and the curriculum itself.

In Cultural Capital, Guillory himself argues that, 

“…the canon does not pass on merely the literature itself, but passes on a kind of social class and idea about culture and civilization”. 

In other words, we’re being taught to see the world in a very specific way. And it all makes me think. If this is the case,  if the curriculum really does kill curiosity, is teaching – in its institutional sense – not the archenemy of learning?

Can we cultivate curiosity?

Einstein once famously stated that,

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education”.

And in many ways, it is. But since curiosity comes so naturally to us, it does survive. Sometimes it lies dormant, silently resting whilst we set about in autopilot mode doing what we’ve been programmed to do. So it’s our job to reawaken it.

At mark-making*, sponsoring the ChipLit Fest – which is all about feeding our inquiring minds – has got us thinking about the need to consciously cultivate curiosity. It’s why we’ll be asking more questions, looking at things more critically and embracing new ways of exploring our world.

For us it’s vital. Because a curious mind is a creative mind.

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