Some Realities of Self-Reliant Curiosity


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Some Realities of Self-Reliant Curiosity: Individual and Small Group Teaching  

In my previous essay, I spoke of the benefits of encouraging curiosity and self-reliance and I also mentioned that creating a learning environment where both traits can flourish means embracing parenting and teaching strategy that is less controlling of the outcome. While this may sound elegant in theory it is reasonable to ask what it might look like in practice. I am prepared to offer several observations of this pedagogical strategy in action.  

Over the last five-and-a-half years I have worked in a variety of educational environments in which I have watched students pursue their own curiosity on an individual, small group, and large group basis. These environments have been private homes, public spaces, and in an independent school setting. My experiences are by no means exhaustive and certainly do not run the full gamut of educational and learning cultures. I should add that I did not work in a traditional public school setting during this five year span; the last time I worked in a public school was 2005. 

Between 2013 and 2016, my work was principally in the humanities and included tutoring and teaching English, composition, grammar, history, and social studies (media, political science, sociology). The principal setting was private homes with individual students and very small groups of 3-4 members. My work was structured around reading and writing assignments, Socratic discussions, and tutoring relationships which involved working with students on how to diagram sentences, conjugate verbs, interpret written passages, and construct expository essays and produce creative writing. Individual and small group work was always discussion-driven and I relied on a high level of personal commitment from my students: they were expected to read, write, and study independently. I did not prepare quizzes or tests and my efforts were concentrated on written assignments and verbal exercises (discussions), much the way a humanities seminar course is prepared at a university.

Results were varied but what was consistent from the beginning was that I had to adjust my expectations about the quality of the work I was to receive. My initial assumption was that the high level of curiosity that I witnessed in nearly all of my students would be followed by a strong work ethic. This was not the case. What I did witness was a learning curve, that is, a movement over time toward a greater commitment to reading, writing, discussion. Initially, nearly every one of my students delivered what I would call the bare minimum: they did no more than I asked and sometimes barely that. If I assigned a certain number of pages of reading they would read only what I assigned and sometimes less. If I gave them a writing assignment they would return a very short composition: a “paragraph,” for instance, would be two or three sentences at most.

When it was time to discuss what my students had been reading nearly all of them were unprepared to offer ideas and opinions. When I would ask opinion questions I almost always encountered a reluctance to offer a viewpoint because the student either believed that they had not understood what they had read or they did not have any interest in offering their perspective. To cope with their silence I would then ask them what I took to be basic questions about the plot or subject of a story or an essay. Even this exercise was difficult because there was an element of what I will call “personal accountability” in it. In many cases, my expectations intimated my students and while I recognized then that it would take time for a relationship to develop, I was struck by an across-the-board reluctance to hold their curiosity accountable to me. Curiosity was, I believe, associated with a form of free play and when I attempted to bridge the gap between “play” and “work” I encountered opposition.

I think it is important to reflect on this for a moment. In my experience in different educational settings, including work as a high school and middle school teacher in Colorado and Maryland and as a graduate teaching assistant in two Canadian universities, I recall that my teaching colleagues, professors, and fellow graduate students believed that a highly structured system that incorporated a forced accountability mechanism was the best way to receive quality work and a studious commitment. There was a general assumption that self-reliance was not really an option until a student was demonstrably an adult. In the universities, undergraduates were presumed to be incapable of a more free-form, open-ended model of classroom participation. In middle school and high school environments the same logic applied. Self-reliance was generally not presumed to be a character trait that most students had and it was not expected, at least in my experience, that undergraduates would have this trait unless they opted for specialized training in a field of their choice and were seeking a post-graduate education. 

Looking back, I can understand why this perspective among the educators that I knew would be the case. Most of the students I saw at the university level were quiet and unaccustomed to the Socratic question-based method that I used to conduct tutorials. When I opted to utilize seminar-style discussions that were question-driven, they were unprepared at first. There were many sessions where I could barely elicit a response from the class in much the same way that when I introduced the Socratic method in middle school and high school classrooms I was initially met with confusion. But over time attitudes and responses changed and performance shifted. Nevertheless, there was an initial struggle in nearly every instance. 

To encourage curiosity and self-reliance does require, I believe, a great deal of patience. It also goes against the grain of many traditional educational models and by “traditional” I mean the “sit and listen,” complete nightly homework, “don’t leave your seat” approach I received in my own public school education. Now I know very well that this approach is changing in many school systems and project-based learning is becoming far more common than it was when I was a student and teacher. Still, I would wager that many of us remain uncomfortable with a hands-off approach that may lead to considerable initial floundering. I am very familiar with the feeling that students (and teachers) must use each moment “productively.” I am also familiar with the assumption that if a student does not initially like something, they will not work at it unless made to do so. I am not saying these assumptions are wrong, only that they are incomplete. There will be an initial adjustment for nearly every student and educator especially since a hands-off approach can very quickly lead to what appears to be “free play.”

The transition from thinking about learning-as-work to learning-as-play is not something that is often discussed outside of Montessori or early childhood learning environments. Play is certainly not a word that many educators that I have known would feel comfortable using in talking about the activities and projects that are being undertaken in their primary or secondary school classrooms. I suspect that play is still seen by many parents and adults as the opposite of work, that is, once a child has graduated from kindergarten. But this does not mean that play and work are opposites. 

One student of mine could spend hours every day working with LEGO and then explain with professional fluency many architectural details in his projects. When he built a structure or a “scenario,” he took pains to detail to me his choice of decor, his concern for historical accuracy, even his choice of weaponry and why he had purchased certain LEGO sets. None of this work was asked of him, he did all of it by his own volition.

I had another student who would spend hours looking up information on the internet. In 2014, she became fascinated by the Winter Olympics and began telling me about what cities were vying for future Olympic games. She dutifully followed the medal count in the newspaper and watched and listened to coverage attentively each day. This interest in the Olympics sparked a passion for world geography and we used to talk at length about why certain nations historically perform better in specific athletic events and how climate encouraged different forms of training. Again, this was a passion my student developed independently and she volunteered information without any prompting. She was justifiably proud of what she committed to memory and of her meticulous attention to detail.

These are but two anecdotal examples and yet I would argue that they are not atypical of the behavior and habits of young people. I had another student who hated reading and loathed having to complete assignments on time. Seldom could I get her to do anything but very rudimentary reading and writing. But if I asked her about her studies of animals she could tell me a great deal about zoology and it was evident that she spent a considerable portion of her time observing animals; one advantage she had was living on four acres in the country with easy access to a creek, woods, and Lake Erie and I tried to incorporate this into her work. She also could spend hours drawing and studying Manga techniques. Again, when the work she was doing was seen primarily as a form of leisure she would approach it with gusto but I had to be very careful about how I tried to incorporate her interests into our time together. I did not want to be seen as attempting to hijack her efforts.

Encouraging self-reliant curiosity can be a very delicate process. Often students enter into a relationship with their teachers with a healthy suspicion that adults -any adult- will trivialize their efforts and dismiss their passions. Again, I do not want to overgeneralize but in my experience, this has been a real concern that I have consistently encountered. I suspect that one way that adults and teachers can overcome this initial suspicion is to tame their own suspicion that students if given greater latitude, will opt solely for play. Many students assume that this is what adults and teachers expect of them and this reinforces once more the artificial barrier between work and play. It is my belief that parents and teachers need to make a more critical appraisal of the boundary between these two categories in their own lives. In other words, do we really believe that work is only what we do not like or are compelled to do and play is merely what involves leisure? Is pleasure synonymous with leisure? When did we learn that?

-Jeremy Nathan Marks 

Note: This essay is a follow-up to this piece which appeared in October 2018:

Self Reliance and Curiosity: A Joint Imperative

Self-reliance and Curiosity: A Joint Imperative 

If you read the business press, watch television, or listen to the radio it is hard to escape the message that the labor markets of tomorrow will be shaped not by full-time employment but by the “gig economy.” In many labor market, this already is the case. For those who are able to fork over the cash necessary to attend university and post-graduate institutions, there is a growing recognition that outside of the STEM fields, full-time employment prospects will be spotty for professionals. Whether this job market prediction proves accurate or not it seems reasonable for students to make a form of Pascal’s wager: Bet on the worst, that is, uncertain, non-gainful employment shaping the new reality.

If you have children or are now of child-bearing/child-rearing age, it seems reasonable to consider what forms of preparation you can take to prepare your child/children for the working world. Perhaps the best solution is actually a joint imperative: teach self-reliance and nurture rigorous curiosity.

Self-reliance and curiosity are partners: a curious person does not have the luxury of waiting for others to satisfy their curiosity; if they want to know they have to go and find. The search for satisfactory answers also demands a persistent self-discipline, a type of grit which teaches the seeker to neither give up nor remain satisfied with conventional explanations. Curiosity is also deeply personal and is driven by the personal prerogative, a fact evident in matters as diverse as the search for truth in science, morality, faith, education, and politics. Curiosity is also a recognition of necessity: when a curious person discovers what they do not know they become better equipped to discover what others do not know either. This is how human knowledge is advanced. As Thomas Edison once said: ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’

When thinking about how to encourage curiosity in children what we are actually contemplating is how to move children toward asking questions that we as parents and educators cannot necessarily answer. When thinking about how to motivate children to become self-reliant we are training ourselves not to rush in to solve problems for them. While this might appear to be a disengaged form of parenting or neglectful form of teaching it is actually two steps towards a partnership with our children. Here an example will be useful.

The world-renowned linguist Professor Noam Chomsky was fortunate to have been raised in a home where his father was a renowned scholar of medieval Hebrew. When he was only twelve years old Chomsky read the proofs of his father’s book on Hebrew grammar. In this case, his father had prepared him for the task of proofreading and understanding a high-level work of scholarship by teaching his son Hebrew from an early age and encouraging his son’s budding curiosity in linguistics. Chomsky’s parents also decided that beginning at the age of two, their son would attend a progressive school in the city of Philadelphia which allowed their son to explore his intellectual curiosity in a responsive and accommodating environment. Young Chomsky was encouraged both at school and at home to read, think, question, and experiment. He lived in a home where intellectual topics were a part of daily conversation and it was assumed that his growing mind required ample opportunities to ask pertinent and pressing questions demanding the attention of adults. During the summer and over extended holidays, Chomsky was sent to New York to stay with relatives who were very involved in the Eastern European Jewish intellectual community and his visits including being a participant and observer of advanced intellectual discourse. As Chomsky and others have noted, this upbringing prepared him intellectually and personally to take full advantage of the educational and professional opportunities that became available to him when he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. Self-reliance, curiosity, and independence of mind were ingrained in the young man well before he matriculated.

Before we assume that because Noam Chomsky is an exceptional person the example I have provided is largely an unrealistic one, I would like to draw attention to what Chomsky and other educators have suggested which is that the habits of self-reliance and curiosity can be encouraged, taught, and modeled. The point is not that all students should expect to become world class intellectuals but rather that self-reliance and curiosity can prepare them to seize opportunities to advance their education and life plans. But this is not all. A self-reliant, curious young adult will also be better prepared to seek mentors and find opportunities for apprenticeship. Self-reliance and curiosity encourage poise, maturity, and patience all of which are valuable skills that create opportunities and open doors.

As parents, educators, and students we are all going to have to be creative in our response to what has been called “the Brave New World of Work.” Curiosity and the ability to be and to remain curious is and will be a requirement for personal success and long-term professional survival.

Note: You can also read the essay here: