“We are all born with an innate need to learn so as to make sense of, and learn from, our experiences. The question is why do so many students lose this natural disposition?" – Bruce Hammonds
Bruce Hammonds’ opening statement and question in his recent post What do we all need to be lifelong learners? made me wonder why the mechanism for learning is there in the first place.
While I don’t entirely disagree with his supposition about the innateness of learning, I question the innateness of a need to make sense of experiences the way he suggests.
One way of rationalising the existence of the learning mechanism is that it evolved for survival. Learning what's good to eat and what's not so good would certainly assist with this. Learning to recognise dangerous situations as well as environments that are safe for settling for the night, or for raising offspring, would likewise tend towards a continued existence.
These abilities to learn are innate, and it is understandable how they may have arisen through evolution. But learning from experience, as an innate tendency, is less of a drive to want to learn. It is more a mechanism for survival. To have a drive to learn needs more than just instinct. It needs curiosity – a compelling urge to want to find out.
Curiosity killed the cat
That ‘curiosity killed the cat’ is well known. In order to seek a learning experience, one needs the drive of the explorer, a curiosity that might be associated with a bohemian tendency to stray away from the safety of the pack.
Curiosity is not always good for survival, however, and it could well be why this trait is not so prominent in some as in others. Part of the curiosity that humans display at an early age can get discouraged by parental action, justified by the idea that curiosity may incur danger.
At first sight, the characteristics of curiosity and learning appear to oppose one another when it comes to survival. But, curiosity coupled with a keen tendency to learn is what all teachers look for in their students.
A complement to learning?
Could it be that curiosity evolved as a feature complementary to the development of the learning mechanism? Curiosity certainly seems to stimulate learning in the young child. Several education principles encourage curiosity at an early age, advocating that it permits the unimpeded development of the child.
Though curiosity may be thought of as being instinctive, it has an almost random aspect to it that makes it different from many other mammalian characteristics. This complex quality of curiosity prevents it from being categorised as a true instinct. It is not innate in the traditional sense, for it is neither a behaviour that’s learnt, nor is it necessarily influenced by the environment.
A strategy for finding out?
What can trigger curiosity, however, is a stimulus that suggests the existence of something unknown. Just watch a cat when it senses movement in a clump of long grass. In situations like this, the creature becomes engaged in a series of actions that appear to be strategies for finding out.
The curiosity that’s experienced by scientists, explorers and the like, and that drives them to search into the unknown, is often stimulated through chance observation. Yet the conscious act of being curious when these situations arise does not occur in these people by chance.
Curiosity and creativity
The importance of curiosity to creativity is implicit. Creativity is a curiosity to explore innovative thought. Curiosity is also important to those who are lifelong learners. It is what drives them to continue learning.
Might it be that the ability to be curious or creative cannot be imparted to everyone? Or are these abilities that should be encouraged at all ages, so that their occurrence in each individual, however scant, can be best put to use in learning throughout life?
Could it be that it’s not ability to learn that’s lost in the young as they progress through school, but the curiosity that drives them to learn that is suppressed?
I affirm Ken Robinson’s opinion that schools can kill creativity.