Cultivating a culture of curiosity

The freedom to ask questions in the classroom motivates students and makes them confident of their intellectual capacity, writes Padmakumar M M

Cultivating a culture of curiosity

I used to joke about how my sister was an electrical and electronics engineer who could never take care of household electricity problems. She would return the compliment by pointing out how I was teaching literature, without having written anything literary. Regardless of our academic performance and career aspirations when we were in school or college, most of us respond to our professions mechanically, with shallow disciplinary knowledge and mediocre mastery over core skills. Our educational system has empowered many of us to convincingly respond to the ‘what’ of a job, that is knowing what is expected of us. Some of us are trained in the ‘how’ of a job; we know how to execute our work. Very few of us — perhaps because of, if not in spite of, our education — are capable of reasoning out ‘why’ we do what we do, and innovate.

True learning
Educational institutions in general have failed in making us critically reflective. It might sound trite, but the truth is we get schooled more and educated less. The scientist-cum-educational reformer, Yash Pal, in a report titled ‘Learning Without Burden,’ offered his bird’s-eye view on Indian education, “a lot is taught, but little is learnt or understood.” From the year the report was published, in 1994, we have not made a huge change of course.

The root of this uninspiring and grossly limited learning that we as a nation are facing could be traced to many a flaw in our system. One of the key reasons is the inherent disregard for the learner’s aspirations and needs in the learning process. In contrast to such an educational reality of ours, renowned educationist John Holt, in his book The Underachieving School, demonstrates what is ideal, “true learning — learning that is permanent and useful, that leads to intelligent action and further learning — can arise only out of the experience, interests, and concerns of the learner.”

In other words, we need to respect the child’s desire to learn without being judgemental or dismissive. When they pose questions, we find it charming for a while and soon become impatient. Our inability to retain a sense of respect to their questions and respond could play up this way: “Dad, why is the rain coming in drops and not like the pouring out of a bucket?” “Well, that’s the way it is.” “Can I try climbing up the rain drops and go to the sky?” “Hasini, stop being silly! Go do your homework now.” Such casual and commonsensical responses are enough to crush the child’s budding curiosity. Unfortunately, this is the most prevalent approach in our families and schools.

There are students who do not know the name of their class teachers and never dared to ask, because questioning — they are unconsciously trained to believe — is an intellectual gauntlet thrown down at the teacher. As a culture, we hastily interpret questioning as arrogance. Most of our families and educational spaces stress a lot on obedience, compliance, reverence, etc. Rather, we need to value curiosity, questioning and an egalitarian outlook towards learning.

Building an intellectual profile
Whether the school-going child becomes a Nobel laureate, a social activist or a cog in the wheel of a corporate giant has a lot to do with the experience, skills, knowledge, values, and a worldly outlook she gains in educational spaces. Children spend a lot of their active time in the school and these are hours that are crucial and formative. At least, around 10 to 20 years of their prime growing years are spent in schools and colleges. Knowing this, schools, colleges and universities should put in mechanisms to stimulate the intellectual search.

Children are born with an innate curiosity. They have a ravenous hunger to know about the environment, people, and phenomena around them. Their questions are an earnest attempt at making sense of the world and a rudimentary step in their path to adulthood. Right from our primary school education, we need to tenderly nurture curiosity. One of the rudimentary steps towards this goal would be to
cultivate a culture of questioning.

To build an intellectual profile for our students, we should avoid worrying about whether they ask the right questions, and place our trust in their right to question. It is by having the freedom to ask what might seem to be a silly or an irrelevant question can the students become confident of their intellectual capacity and sustain their interest in learning. It is in a conducive atmosphere for free, open and non-hierarchic intellectual enquiry will a child feel valued.

Questioning is not an end in itself. It is a search for knowing something. In many contexts, it’s an admission of one’s limited knowledge, a sort of restlessness in accepting it, and a desperation to step beyond that horizon. In some other contexts, it is a call for honest reflection, about our likes, dislikes, anxieties, fears and even existence. It’s an adventure stirred up. It’s a free ticket to explore the philosophical facets of our lives, capable of propelling our own subjective trajectories. Questioning requires character. To question stereotypes, wrongdoing, undue exercise of authority, ossified forms of knowledge, etc, one needs a certain degree of knowledge, clarity and boldness. All these are not just ways of exploring and empowering the self, but also our responsibilities in a democratic polity.

Our culture has had great traditions which deeply valued and proactively put questioning to use. The Charvaka and Buddhist philosophies are fine examples of how scepticism was a definitive practice in ancient intellectual traditions. While Amartya Sen, in his book Argumentative Indian, talks about such ancient traditions of debating almost anything and everything, he has also highlighted how the space for democratic dissent and public debate is shrinking in recent times.

Questioning is a cultural necessity. Being a modern democracy means the same, in terms of dialogic engagement. We need a vibrant culture of questioning: to resist intellectual genuflection to the powers that be, to exercise a scientific temper as mentioned in our constitution, and of course, to envision a more egalitarian India.

Inspired exploration
For all these reasons, the classroom cannot be a space where dynamic debates are largely compromised. As a culture, we need to validate and value questions from our children as a sign of their critical, creative and metacognitive growth. Teachers need to create a space for freewheeling and inspired exploration of knowledge. They need to recalibrate their role from a supplier-of-knowledge to catalysts who fuel individual quest for learning in the student.

The students need to recast their mind as a reflective processor rather than as a sophisticated cold storage space of knowledge. With open-minded teachers, critical students and learning-centred approaches, the classroom could become a space for lively discussions and might even empower students to discover the joy and purpose of learning early.

(The author is assistant professor, Christ University, Bengaluru)

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