Curiosity is just an opportunity

William Rankin
Jul 15 · 5 min read

It’s both ironic and fitting that the death should have happened in a valley named “Perseverance,” because the explorer had persevered far beyond what anyone had planned or imagined.

Of course, that’s also one of the things that made the death so poignant — the reason the whole world shared stories about the explorer’s last words when the experts finally called off the search, the reason news of the death and memorials trended on Twitter, the reason people all over the world grieved so publicly. It felt somehow personal that after all of the amazing discoveries, the death should have happened so far away, in such an alien setting, with the explorer alone on the edge of that Martian ravine, its batteries faltering as the dust slowly buried it…

Opportunity had been a very good rover, indeed.

Our greatest asset

Humans are not very powerful or intimidating physically. We don’t have very sharp teeth or claws, our skin isn’t tough and we wound easily, and we’re not very strong or fast compared with many other creatures. The one natural asset we do have is an almost insatiable curiosity.

If you’ve ever taken a turn just to see what’s down that street or clambered up a hill to see what the view is from up there or squinted and peered to see if you could make out what’s at the bottom of that deep, dark hole, you’ve done something quintessentially human.

We instinctively want to know — and even when we find out, we want to know more. In fact, as all exasperated parents will affirm, we’re inquisitive from the time we’re born and our earliest speech is riddled with questions: Why is the sky blue? How do birds know how to fly? What does the moon taste like?…

Of course, sometimes our curiosity can be dangerous. For thousands of years, we’ve tried to warn ourselves about the risks this part of our nature poses, telling stories about people who took wondering too far: Adam & Eve, Pandora, Orpheus & Eurydice, that saying about what curiosity does to cats…

And some people use this threat of danger to their advantage. They don’t want us wondering, and they certainly don’t want us investigating for ourselves and making new answers. If they can keep us distracted with meaningless activities, if they can control access by locking some people out, if they can keep us from making our own investigations and solutions by convincing us that all we need to do is consume theirs, then they can control the story.

And the people who control the story control the world. That’s the reason Orwell made the Newspeak Dictionary the crowning achievement of the dystopian IngSoc in 1984: with no words to let a person wonder, compare, explore, or make, there’d be nothing to challenge the status quo, nothing to undermine the existing order, nothing to change the world…

To which, like all good explorers, we say: screw that.

Curiosity’s robotic arm holds 5 different devices to help explorers learn more about Mars — because learning is what explorers do. Photo courtesy of NASA

True educators don’t want you to follow the beaten path; we want you to strike out for points unknown, to pursue what interests you, finding out not only what’s just over that horizon — but over the next horizon and the one after that as well. We know that the only way you can do that is to recognise and lay claim to your true status as a human: you’re a maker, an explorer, an inventor. And given all of the problems we face today — climate change, social injustice, energy sustainability, political extremism, and a whole host of others — we need explorers and makers like never before. We need people who will ask new questions, seek new perspectives, and invent what’s next….

Not everyone should make a rover, of course, but some people absolutely should because doing so will open up a whole new chain of inquiry and discovery for them. That will start some learners on a path to make the next rover that actually goes to Mars. And some of those will make the next generation of tools that will accompany the first human explorers. And some of those will equip the first Martian settlers. To borrow a phrase, they’ll “push the human race forward.” That’s as it should be. That’s how humanity progresses — not by filling out a worksheet and not by waiting to make a difference later, but by exploring and learning when the twinkle of curiosity is still in the learner’s eye.

The saddest end to Opportunity’s mission would be if we let its last words be our last words. That would not only be a shame — it would be a betrayal of our birthright as explorers and seekers.

Curiosity kills, but it kills things that need to die: complacency, small-mindedness, isolation, fear…

The true mission of teachers shouldn’t be standardised anything. It has no place on a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet or a bubble-in test. The true mission of teachers is to equip a generation of explorers whose inquisitiveness leads them to make what’s next. One of our North Stars, Paulo Freire, said it powerfully: “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

Curiosity kills, but it kills things that need to die: complacency, small-mindedness, isolation, fear… Nurturing it, and nothing else, is the work to which schools are called today.

Learning by Making

pi-top brings together a global community of educators, learners, parents, thought leaders, policy makers, activists, developers and other citizens who share a passionate interest and a desire to profoundly improve upon the way we learn, live and work together.

William Rankin

Written by

Bill is a learning designer who has worked for more than 25 years to improve access and agency in learning and to blow up the Taylorite education factory…

Learning by Making

pi-top brings together a global community of educators, learners, parents, thought leaders, policy makers, activists, developers and other citizens who share a passionate interest and a desire to profoundly improve upon the way we learn, live and work together.

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