Friday, June 19, 2015

Review of The Hungry Mind by Susan Engel

This past March, I read an article by Susan Engel about the relationship between schools and curiosity. I approached the article as a parent of bored teenagers and also as an idealistic teacher and scholar.  I am always wondering what more we could be doing to promote creative teaching and learning. After reading it, I quickly purchased the book that spawned the article. The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood asks us to step back and get a sense of what, exactly, curiosity is – who has it and who uses it, how we might recognize it, and what it would take to build it.

Most of the time, educators talk about “achievement.” When we use that term, we are talking about how a child performs on an assessment. The “achievement gap” is the space between different groups’ performances on a standardized measurement.  That’s all. Just about every school reform these days is tailored toward understanding and impacting those scores.

One thing that most standardized tests don’t measure is a child’s curiosity.  However, curiosity is one of those vague categories that we know intuitively is a helpful trait. Curious people solve problems. Curious people come up with meaningful questions. Curious people learn more about subjects that interest them. But demystifying the vagueness of curiosity – What is it, exactly? How do we know it when we see it? – is largely Engel’s project. To that end, she synthesizes volumes of research to help us get a handle on this slippery concept.

Over several chapters, she looks at curiosity in infants and in children as they age. She looks at curiosity as a feeling and as an action. She looks at different kinds of curiosity (deep in a single subject and broad across subjects). She looks at it as an innate quality and as a learned habit.  She looks at how curiosity works in a social environment. And one big claim emerges through the chapters: as children age, the opportunities to be curious diminish. And that diminishing takes place at the schoolhouse door.

There are probably many reasons why schools squelch curiosity, but Engel focuses on teachers as agents of a one-right-answer curriculum. If teachers are only the bearers of the answers to prescribed questions, and if they do not have space to model or encourage the practice of asking genuine questions, how can curiosity grow?

This made me remember my boys’ year in kindergarten, which was arguably the most curiosity-promoting year they have had. (For a kindergarten contrast, check out this TED talk about a school in Japan). And even then – one memory that stands out involves the science unit they did on “fabric.” The National Science Foundation box kit about fabric was done at every elementary school in the district. The purpose was to have the 5 year-olds discover which types of fabrics absorb water and which types of fabric repel water. Sound like fun? It wasn’t. Who came up with such a boring thing? Kindergarteners like smells and sounds and things that crawl. Fabric? Not so much. 

The task involved each child putting three drops of water on different kinds of fabric and writing down what happened. The dropper was pretty cool, because SQUEEZING. One kid decided, hmmm what would happen if he squeezed droplets all over his body. Guess what? His shirt absorbed the water! And then he wondered what would happen if he poured an entire bowl of water on himself. Guess what? All his clothes absorbed the water! The teacher, however, was not absorbing how this was the place where the curiosity lay, not in curriculum guide or in the instructions or in the accompanying worksheet. Her anger quickly shut down any further exploration that day.

The problem I saw was not so much that the kid got wet or that a mess was made or that the teacher became overwhelmed. The problem was that there was an implicit lesson in that interaction: the child learned that the only questions that mattered were written on the worksheet. The only process that mattered was following directions. The good news is that Engel does conclude with a section on teachers who do cultivate curiosity in their classrooms, even in this era of standardized accountability. Her discussion is ultimately a hopeful one.

This book is not an academic text, per se, but neither is it a “popular” book aimed at a broad audience. I imagine that scholars might get turned off by her personal anecdotes, while more casual readers might get bogged down with the research. However, if you are the kind of reader who is looking for new directions in education, this book is a great place to start.

You can read this author’s thoughts about “joy” and schools here.

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