Intellectual curiosity, lifelong learning, and formal education

It was on the plane ride from Boston back home to California after my freshman year at Harvard that I met Michael Baur, Associate Professor at Fordham University School of Law. Michael sat in the aisle seat, and next to him sat his adorable little daughter, no more than a few years old, seat belt tightened to the max. Across the aisle sat Michael’s wife and two more little ones—a boy and a girl. As I squeezed past Michael and his daughter to get to my window seat, he asked me if the “H” shield on my backpack stood for Harvard; I said yes. We started a conversation, and I found out, dumbstruck by this wondrous stroke of coincidence, that Michael was an alum of Harvard Law School and had once been a resident tutor in Cabot House, the upperclass dorm that I had been assigned to next year! As the engines of the plane began to rumble, and I felt the familiar hand of inertia pushing me back into the seat, Michael’s daughter Grace asked innocently: “daddy, how do planes fly?” Without even a hint of irritation or annoyance, he explained, warmly and patiently, gesturing with his hands: “well, darling, it has to do with Bernoulli’s principle. The top of the wing of the airplane is curved while the bottom is flat, so that air travels faster over the top than the bottom, which creates lower pressure above the wing than below it. This creates lift, so the plane can fly!” Right as he finished, the airplane pitched upward and started its ascent. He smiled at Grace, and turned to me seriously: “something like that right? I don’t quite remember exactly.” Snippets from my high school physics class flashed through my head, but the exercise was futile: equations and theorems and principles had gone in one ear and out the other long, long ago. Mesmerized, I looked back at him with a blank stare, laughed nervously, and thought to myself, “just smile and nod, smile and nod.” For Michael, that moment was just one of a hundred in his daily life of being a father, but that brief moment has been forever seared into my memory and permanently filed into my “How To Be A Good Parent” mental cabinet.

Recently, as I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the problems with our current education system and on a more personal level, thinking about watering the right seeds for my own growth and development, this memory of Michael and his daughter Grace comes to mind time and time again. Parents like Michael, who instill in their young, impressionable kids the value of learning and encouraging them to be curious and explore the world around them, are increasingly rare. I’ve had my fair share of sitting next to parents and their young kids on flights, and too often, I hear this line coming out of the mouth of a parent: “I dunno, don’t ask stupid questions.” In our modern day and age, in a world where, in the words of HBS Professor Nancy Koehne, “turbulent is the new normal”, when the average adult switches jobs 11 times between the ages of 18 and 44, when the traits of curiosity, adaptability, and openness to new experiences are more essential than ever, intellectual curiosity is declining and the population of lifelong learners is dwindling.

What is lifelong learning? According to Wikipedia, lifelong learning is the “‘lifelong, voluntary, and self-motivated’ pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.” What is intellectual curiosity? My search for a pithy definition (after Wikipedia, Quora, and proved unsatisfactory) took me on a roller coaster ride from parenting blogs to college admissions sites (Stanford calls it "intellectual vitality") to research papers on developmental psychology; still, I didn’t find a single agreed upon definition. It is much easier to name the symptoms of intellectual curiosity than the disease itself: asking numerous questions about the unknown, exploring diverse subjects, being open to new ideas and opinions, and having a love for learning (I’ve certainly caught the bug). For the sake of this blog post, I define intellectual curiosity as valuing learning for the sake of learning. That is, the pursuit of knowledge is intrinsically motivated, an end itself, rather than extrinsically motivated, or seen as a means to another end, such as money or power or pleasure. Clayton Christensen, HBS Professor, innovation researcher, and author of the book Disrupting Class, defines intrinsic motivation as “when the work itself stimulates and compels an individual to stay with the task because the task by itself is inherently fun and enjoyable…were they’re no outside pressures, an intrinsically motivated person might still very well decide to tackle this work.” Encouraging children from a young age to ask questions, no matter how trivial, develops their intrinsic motivation for learning, and through this, their intellectual curiosity. Anyone want to bet against me that Michael’s daughter Grace will grow up to be a lifelong learner?

Yet, the present day decline in intellectual curiosity in children isn’t the fault of parents alone; our flawed public schooling system should also shoulder the blame. Take this staggering study for example. According to Sir Ken Robinson (watch this really nifty RSA Animate video on YouTube), in a 1998 longitudinal study in the book Break Point and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, 98% of 1500 kindergardeners are at the genius level of divergent thinking (measured by a test that asks questions such as “how many different uses can you think of for a paperclip?”), at age 10, this number had declined to 32%, while at age 15, only 10% of the same children were at the genius level. In a later study of 200,000 adults, only 2% were at the genius level of divergent thinking. In his talk, Robinson states that divergent thinking is a prerequisite of creativity. And unsurprisingly, creativity, which necessitates inquisition and exploring many options, is highly correlated with intellectual curiosity. Similar to the divergent thinking test, another developmental psychology test showed that curiosity declines with age (about a -.267 correlation). While a certain part of this decline seems natural, because one evolutionary reason for curiosity is reducing the cognitive burden of uncertainty, and as you get older, there is less uncertainty in the world around you, few would disagree that formal education has contributed heavily to this plummet in intellectual curiosity. Einstein was right when he said: “it is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

What is it about formal education that is so cancerous to intellectual curiosity? For one, there is a disconnect between the pedagogy of teachers and the learning styles of students. Citing psychologist Howard Gardner’s research on multiple intelligences, Clayton Christensen writes in Disrupting Class that although students each have their own unique strengths and weakness and individual combinations of multiple intelligences, curriculums and subjects are taught in the dominant intelligence of that subject. Thus, the same star soccer player, who is very gifted in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, may be failing his physics class because he is low in logical-mathematical intelligence. Yet, the majority of physics teachers teach in the paradigm that caters to their own intelligence—what they are comfortable with; good at. Modeled after the factories birthed in the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th Century, schools have only become more standardized and one-sized-fits-all as population growth has skyrocketed in the 20th century—more and more like a factory line. But kids aren’t like cars—every kid is different. Our education system is a square hole that tries to fit a bunch of different pegs into it—some triangular, some circular, some rectangular. It doesn’t help that our society as a whole has an outdated view of intelligence as binary: you’re either smart or dumb. The few square pegged students are the ones considered traditionally “smart.” In addition, with the rise of grading and standardized test taking, formal education has provided more and more extrinsic motivations for learning, further diverging from intellectual curiosity, which is predicated on an intrinsic motivation for learning.

Reflecting on my own upbringing, I was incredibly fortunate to have parents who encouraged exploration and nourished my curiosity in all ways, enrolling me in any and all activities that I found interesting, from sports to journalism to acting. And even though I was one of the lucky few who was born a square peg and (perhaps because of it) liked school, it wasn’t until relatively recently that I developed the level of thought and cognitive capabilities to differentiate my formal schooling from learning as a more abstract principle. Only recently did I start seeing my education as only one small piece in a larger, lifelong puzzle of learning. Perhaps, formal schooling, which takes up so much of kids’ childhoods and is the source of most of their limited knowledge, leads students to conflate learning and formal education, so they think the two are one and the same. Thus, when kids perform poorly in school, not because they are incapable, but simply because academic subjects aren’t taught in a way that aligns with their own intelligences, they feel emotions such as anxiety and worry, even fear and helplessness, and their confidence in their own abilities nosedives (research on the emotions that results from the pairing of different skill levels of a subject and challenge levels of a task, see psychologist Cziksentmihayli); understandably, some give up and become apathetic. Based on the research of several developmental psychologists, there is a positive relationship between curiosity and self-esteem, so performing poorly in school, which lowers self-esteem, chokes off the intellectual curiosity of kids. Consequently, many students never develop their mental faculties to the level of thought that enables them to parse learning from formal education (nor do many want to think about learning), so unsurprisingly, when they graduate from high school or college (or drop out), many stop trying to learn.

But all is not lost. Many educators, innovators, and thought leaders are convinced that technology, particularly the Internet, will disrupt education. From free open online classes to awarding badges for learning skills to flipping the learning model upside down so students watch lectures at home and do homework at school and teachers act as facilitators rather than lecturers, education is currently undergoing a paradigm shift. Even as an avid technologist, I am not totally convinced that technology is the be-all, end-all, the turnkey solution to fix our broken education system. It’s too convenient. Too complacent (oh, well some crazy futuristic innovation will come by and change everything). Even if technology is 42, while we wait for the Khan Academy’s and Skillshare’s and EdX’s of our world to make everything better, there must be something we can all do within our daily lives to compel change. As Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” This post started with the powerful, incandescent, and brief interaction between a parent, Michael, and his daughter, Grace. It has come full circle, back to two people—you and me. It is my hope that this blog post has lit a fire in your own heads and provided food for thought. I ask you all to ponder: how might parents do a better job of nourishing intellectual curiosity in their child’s development? How might schools change their curriculums and paradigms to foster intrinsic motivation in students and craft lifelong learners? Perhaps more importantly, how do we cultivate intellectual curiosity in our own lives? And how do we cultivate intellectual curiosity in the lives of people around us?