The Radical Act of Teaching Curiosity
Alberto is intensely curious. His curiosity is essential but vulnerable, like a campfire in a blizzard. I can barely remember him as a Sophomore. That was three years ago and then the Pandemic and remote instruction. Alberto struggled to engage in his Junior year and didn’t attend school at all in his senior year. Last August we reopened our campus and Alberto was there. When we first talked he mentioned that he had taught himself the Linux operating system so we found an old laptop he could experiment with. Every day during lunch, 2nd period and 7th he would be behind that laptop, typing white text onto a black screen. I would check in with him to see if his work was relevant to the classes he was enrolled in. He would do his best to tell me. He is very quiet, excruciatingly quiet. I leaned in and asked multiple times for clarification. Mostly I didn’t understand what he said but it became clear that my understanding was disruptive to his learning so I had to be satisfied with the fact that he was clearly learning something.
Two Visions of Education: Obedience vs. Liberation
There are two separate and distinct visions for the purpose of education; one characterized by obedience and the other by liberation. In two papers written recently by Augustina Paglayan she looks at 109 countries over 200 years of public education and finds that both autocracies and democracies have implemented public education as a tool to teach obedience and to inculcate deference to authority. The 2012 Texas GOP Platform is the perfect example of this.
“We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
But it is not just the political right that designs and deploys education as an engine for obedience. The left also fundamentally understands the purpose of education as indoctrination into an existing and specific reality. To be clear, the craven, self-serving, Wormtongues of the current Republican Party have designed the most detestable dystopia but the political left also lacks the courage to embrace the reality of our individual mortality and the inevitably of a world managed differently by others. The impossibly static worlds dully imagined by both the right and the left are the conceits of those who believe that they own the future.
This version of education, education bent on maintaining any specific power structure, education bent on obedience, is oppression.
“The radical, committed to human liberation, does not become the prisoner of a ‘circle of certainty’ within which reality is also imprisoned. On the contrary, the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.” — Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
There is another vision of education. One that recognizes time and mortality; one that requires faith in students as humans and courage to engage in love as imperfect but reciprocal dialogue. This vision of education requires educators to understand their students as partners in humanity and to understand that all of us construct knowledge and meaning through our interactions with the world.
In 1938, in his book Experience and Education, John Dewey talked about the difference between the two educations which he called traditional and experiential. Dewey realized that all experiences catalyze learning and that students inhabit experience regardless of the pedagogy so the quality of the experience is the defining characteristic of effective education. Because of this, he advocated for the “kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences.”
In the 1960s, Paulo Freire refined this distinction, labeling traditional education as “banking” and describing banking education as a process where an endowed teacher deposits certified knowledge into the heads of incomplete students. Freire contrasted this with the idea of a purposeful “problem-posing” education where students are understood as “conscious beings, and consciousness as consciousness intent upon the world”. In this frame, education is understood as a “posing of the problems of human beings in their relations with the world.”
Who gets to be Curious?
Taken together Dewey and Freire describe a vision for education that is practiced today but in a cruel and disingenuous way. We reserve potentially liberatory education for our most elite families. We only allow it for those who have convinced us that they own the future. We choose who is allowed access to this education not because knowledge is dangerous. It isn’t. Even educators focused on obedience want all students to regurgitate certified knowledge. It’s the ability and the license to generate knowledge, to create new meaning, that is most feared and so it is intended only for those that are most embedded in, and likely to uphold, existing power structures. This is the cruel irony of our “best” schools. Those who are awarded access to liberatory pedagogy are those who are least likely to choose liberation.
“One of the goals of education is not simply to fill students with facts and information but to help them learn how to learn. Classroom studies document the fact that underserved English learners, poor students, and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students. Their curriculum is less challenging and more repetitive. Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom’s taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brainpower. As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners.” (Zaretta Hammond, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain)
The elite of the left and the right attend the same schools and are provided the same quality experiences. These gifted students, these students to whom gifts have been given, are taught that problems are definable and defeatable. However, their separation, the isolation of their caste, exposes them only to the problems they experience and in this sense, they are fatally blind to the problems of the world and unable to bend their consciousness to be intent upon the world. This blindness is the result of unearned privilege and while it would be inaccurate and unjust to describe this blindness as oppression, to be blind in this way is to be captured, to be contained, to be limited, and unable to create “generative themes” to overcome these unseen limitations. The fact of the gifts these students have been given ensures that they are unlikely to challenge the power structures that benefit them.
“In the last analysis, (generative) themes both contain and are contained in limit-situations; the tasks they imply require limit-acts. When the themes are concealed by the limit-situations and thus are not clearly perceived, the corresponding tasks — people’s responses in the form of historical action — can be neither authentically nor critically fulfilled. In this situation, humans are unable to transcend the limit-situations to discover that beyond these situations — and in contradiction to them — lies an untested feasibility.” — Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
In a fertile learning environment, in a fertile world, curiosity is the cognitive and emotional bridge across adversity, across limitations. Curiosity is the engine that drives intention. The most powerful learning is rooted in discovery. Not the discovery of an Eastern Egg factoid hidden by a teacher asking students to regurgitate answers but authentic discovery; the “Ah hah!” moment that takes root in memory and seeds future understanding in future experiences. Curiosity sets the vector for this discovery. I did not understand until recently that I need to kindle curiosity before I can expect learning and because curiosity is not subservient to my syllabus, awarding points for completed assignments is not just futile, it is oppressive in that it predominantly rewards obedience. Curiosity is the pedagogical opposite of obedience. This realization has led to a lot of my flailing this year and ultimately back to the fundamental questions: “What is my accountability?” and “How do I know if I am any good?”
I teach Computer Science which I understand as two different things. The first is a set of skills with names like variables, conditionals, functions, lists, and loops. The second is a generalizable set of habits of mind that are centered on “problem-solving”. I enjoy teaching Computer Science because Problem Solving is in the nature of the discipline but it is not exclusively so. Problem Solving is also essential to learning in History or Biology or Spanish. In any discipline, curiosity can be leveraged to explore the breadth of the fundamentals of the topic and to motivate the depth of learning which is necessary to approach mastery. Curiosity creates intent in learning which results in the posing of problems that manifests as positive action. Freire refers to this idea of “positive action” as praxis which he defines as “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.”
“Critical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried on with the oppressed at whatever the stage of their struggle for liberation. The content of that dialogue can and should vary in accordance with historical conditions and the level at which the oppressed perceive reality. But to substitute monologue, slogans, and communiques for dialogue is to attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of domestication. Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building; it is to lead them into the populist pitfall and transform them into masses which can be manipulated.” — Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed
My primary goal as an educator is not for students to acquire specific knowledge or for students to be awarded specific grades or get accepted to specific colleges. My goal as an educator is for students to be liberated. Freire refers to liberation as “not a gift, not a self-achievement, but a mutual process.”
Teachers and those who manage and train teachers can be obsessed with “behavior management” as a way to create a productive classroom environment. However, behavior management is usually assumed to be an activity where the teacher is the manager of the student’s behavior. From my point of view, this is at the very center of why so many of our students don’t succeed. In my not so humble opinion, the singularly most important outcome of education is for each student to develop the ability to manage their own behavior or, more broadly, for each student to build an understanding of their world that includes themself as an agent of positive change in their own life; a conscious being with their consciousness bent on their world. Only with this agency can they engage in liberation. Only with curiosity can we build this agency.
Alberto struggled to play the game, to do the assignments, to deposit the knowledge proffered by his teachers. However, in his senior year, he did figure out how to apply his curiosity within the limitations of our assignments. He completed an exceptional senior project that was beyond my expectations and beyond my understanding but it wasn’t the excellence of the product that excited me the most, it was the depth of his engagement and the extent of his growth. As I think about what I did as his teacher I realize three things:
- I was not in his way
- I was of service
- I provided an environment that was comfortable and safe
- I provided resources (time, technology, content libraries and examples)
- I provided oxygen (encouragement and acceptance) to grow his curiosity.
This is not yet a pedagogy but it is on the way to one.