Curiosity, or How I Learned to Blow up Fuses

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“Judge a person by their questions, rather than their answers.” Voltaire (French philosopher)

Supposedly, curiosity killed the cat, but don’t tell that to any scientist. Without curiosity, science might never have come into being. For that matter, I’m not sure how you can teach effectively without engaging your students’ curiosity. It’s a tough row to hoe to persuade students to learn something they’re not interested in learning.  But engage that curiosity and then your work will be much easier.

I like to think that curiosity is contagious. When I was in the stretch between fifth and eighth grades, I was good friends with a classmate named Roland. We were both interested in science but he was even more enthusiastic about it than I was. We spent many afternoons after school together, cooking up plans for scientific experiments. In truth, he always seemed to come up with the most outrageous – and thus, more alluring – experiments. We carried out a few of them, much to the dismay of my parents. They had unwittingly provided our laboratory and occasionally suffered the consequences of their generosity. Like the time when we experimented with screwing electrical fuses into light bulb sockets and then turning on the switch. Those fuses, it turns out, would explode in a flash of light and the smell of burnt metal. We repeated that experiment many times – until my father’s supply of fuses was exhausted, any way. It must have been about ensuring that our results were repeatable, as good scientists would insist.

Roland’s curiosity and enthusiasm made my curiosity stronger, just at that time when I was also developing a competing curiosity: about girls. After we finished high school and he continued on the path of science while I turned to studying literature, we would tease each other about whose curiosity had been responsible for the most outrageous “experiments.” I’m pretty sure he won most of those arguments.

That same effect, of curiosity in one person spreading to another, is one of the hidden arts of teaching. If the teacher and student are both engaged in a quest to learn something new, both will profit from the search. But if the teacher demands curiosity of the student without showing any of his own, then I’m not so sure the result will be of much use to either of them.

We all need to be like my friend Roland. It doesn’t hurt to have a Roland in our own lives, either.

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