Last Thanksgiving (no, that is not my earliest memory) we drove out to Mesa, AZ to spend the holiday with my side of the family: my parents, sister, and her three children. At some point my mother and I got to talking about childhood memories, and I told her the earliest memory I can recall.
I am in a dimly lit room, looking out a window. Outside is a hazy landscape – a valley and forested mountainsides. My mother’s voice is singing.
As I described my impressions, my mother’s face grew serious. “A valley?” she said. “Yes,” I replied. “That part is absolutely clear.”
“The only place we lived that looked like that was in the Philippines,” she said. “We moved away before you were a year old. I held you in my arms and sang to you as I looked out the window.”
I do not know how I can remember that scene. Clear memories are supposed to begin with the acquisition of vocabulary, since before there are labels, there can be no cognitive separation of objects. I do know that the memory is real – the impression is very strong.
Mom, do you remember the song? I don’t remember any words, only the sound of your voice.
Teachers know that the ideal student is the one who is interested, works hard, understands everything easily, and remembers forever. But since ideal people – students, teachers, and every other category – are in short supply, we hope for just one or two of those qualities.
And if I had to pick one? Curiosity wins, hands down. A student who wants to learn, who has a hunger and thirst for knowledge, will work harder and remember better; all this in turn makes the understanding more likely to happen at a deeper level. Which reminds me of another Einstein quote: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
How can we awaken curiosity? Maybe it is more important in the early stages of education to focus on the happiness of the child, to provide an environment in which learning coexists with joy. After a while, the child will find joy in learning for its own sake. Successful students make empowered citizens. Empowered citizens make a brighter future. So let us not underestimate the importance of doing everything possible to make school a happy place for all our nation’s children! It is not a question of what we can afford to do, but rather of what we cannot afford not to do.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
In Einstein’s day, formal education consisted mostly of rote and recital. Independent thinking was, as a rule, not encouraged. We have come a long way since then! Educational doctrine has come round to mirror exactly Einstein’s point of view; all professional educators today learn that they are – primarily – facilitators of learning, not sources of knowledge. A large base of knowledge is a good thing, but in this age of information technology, we are seldom more than the push of a button away from the facts we need to process. Anyone can access data; knowing how to interpret it is another matter. Using it to gain further knowledge is at another level completely. Those higher levels are accessed by minds engaged through curiosity. As a father of students, and teacher of my neighbors’ children, I am glad that curiosity has taken its place in the formal education of the new generations.
Ivan the Terribly Curious, a new children’s picture book by Michael Massey, is now available for purchase at Lulu.com. Visit our “Books for Children” page for more information.