Curiosity Killed the Cat, but It Worked Pretty Well for a Monkey

curious george with booksSometimes I find myself curious about a phrase or saying that I’ve heard repeated of which I am unfamiliar. For instance, when I didn’t know what warp and woof meant, I hunted down its meaning. More recently, I’ve found I am not as up-to-date on some of the text and Facebook shorthand, so I had to look up “smh,” only to shake my own head at the reality that this had become a commonplace comment. Perhaps one of the oddest phrases is “curiosity killed the cat.” Curiosity, in fact, is what caused me to research an answer to the other two phrases, and since I am not a cat, it seemed safe to pursue.

What I found was intriguing. The original phrase was likely from a 1598 play by Ben Johnson called Every Man in His Humor, but it was not “curiosity killed the cat,” but rather “care (worry) will kill a cat.” Shakespeare used a similar phrasing in his play Much Ado About Nothing the following year. When the phrase appears in literature a few centuries later, the word care had changed to curiosity, and I was unable to track down why. I tell this story because curiosity, the very quality that caused me to learn these new pieces of information, is often ignored in educational settings. In fact, education is sometimes so focused on curriculum and measurable goals that curiosity is not only not encouraged, but is likely discouraged as a distraction from “learning.” Many modern educators appear to fear that their students are, in fact, feline, and would perish if they were to pursue the avenue in which their curiosity leads.

Unfortunately, not many have undertaken a project of exploring the role of curiosity in the classroom. In his article called “How Can Teachers Foster Curiosity?,” Erik Shonstrom says “There isn’t much professional development in promoting curiosity in the classroom. Especially for schools that serve students from socioeconomic backgrounds that are traditionally underperforming, notions about curiosity research or development of inquisitiveness seem like well-intentioned but superfluous pipe dreams.” Shonstrom’s point demonstrates a huge part of the problem. The issue is not that curiosity inhibits learning, but rather that curiosity could potentially make preparation for standardized tests more difficult. Since scores on these standardized tests impact so much of public education, from teacher promotion to school funding and more, fostering curiosity at the possible expense of test preparation is a dangerous risk.

Classical Christian schools, however, have a luxury that most public schools do not—the freedom to foster curiosity in students because there is no standardized test to fear.[1] Nevertheless, many classical Christian educators likely feel similar pressures to stay on track with the curriculum at the expense of student curiosity. Perhaps more problematic is the fear of losing control of a classroom that runs wild with curiosity and lacks discipline.

Although these fears are legitimate, the benefits of curiosity for learning far outweigh the challenges. Studies performed by UC-Davis concluded two important benefits of curiosity. First, curiosity prepares the brain for learning by putting it in a state that allows it to learn and retain any kind of information. Second, curiosity makes subsequent learning more rewarding because it leads to increased activity in the brain circuit related to reward and pleasure.[2]

The benefits of curiosity are not just confirmed by scientific studies, however. In Augustine’s Confessions, he reflects upon why certain studies were easier to learn than others. He writes, ““From this it is sufficiently clear that a free curiosity is more effective in learning than a discipline based on fear. Yet, by thy ordinance, O God, discipline is given to restrain the excess of freedom.”[3] Augustine argues that curiosity is a more effective learning tool than fear (modern equivalent: grades and test scores). Yet, he also recognizes that God has provided discipline and parameters within which such freedom can thrive. G. K. Chesterton argues likewise when he says that the rules and order of Christianity provided the opportunity for “good things to run wild.”[4]

Classical Christian education is rooted in a belief that students need to learn how to become participants in the great conversation of the western tradition. There are certainly parameters that schools and teachers can establish to provide a framework for student learning, but within that framework, I am proposing that students will be better served by providing opportunities for cultivating curiosity.

How can we accomplish this balance between curiosity and curriculum? Within the framework of the classical model and the curriculum’s framework, I propose three ways to start cultivating curiosity. First, teachers can construct assignments that encourage curiosity. Whether this is a reading project where students can choose a book on a topic about which they are curious, or allowing students to choose a project topic and/or project type that allows creativity and curiosity to flourish, these kinds of assignments will help students engage in the learning out of a desire to learn rather than an obligation to learn.

Second, as teachers we need to model curiosity by loving our subject on our own time. Too often teachers try to get students to love subjects that the teacher himself does not love. They try to get students to care about learning their subject when the teacher himself no longer pursues learning in that subject. If we do not model a continued love for our subject and demonstrate for our students lifelong learning, how can we expect them to desire to learn what we teach them? But if we pursue further learning on topics about which we are curious, students see the fruitfulness of such endeavors, provided we are open enough to share that learning.

Third, we can help students become curious by finding connection points between the material and their daily lives. Some students intuitively do this on their own, but many students need help seeing how the great books of the western tradition have anything to do with their life once they leave the walls of the school. If we can help them see how this learning intersects with their lives, we are much closer to fostering the type of curiosity that will not only propel them to further learning, but will prepare them to make connections between this new learning and their daily lives without our help. If students reach such a point, then we can rightly say, in my opinion, that they are well-educated, regardless of what standardized tests say—though I suspect the standardized tests will agree.

So as classical Christian educators, let’s stop fearing premature death from curiosity; we’re not cats after all. And let’s instead take our cue from Augustine, Chesterton, and a fictional monkey named George, for whom, despite a few mishaps, curiosity worked quite well.

 

[1]I do think it is possible, and in fact profitable, for public educators to foster curiosity, and there are a number of ways to do so. However, since this post is primarily about classical Christian education, that proposal will have to wait for another day or be undertaken by another author.

[2]Andy Fell, “Curiosity helps learning and memory,” accessed at http://blogs.ucdavis.edu/egghead/2014/10/02/curiosity-helps-learning-and-memory/.

[3]Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), 91.

[4]Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading (New York: B & N, 2007), 87.

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