Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Inverse Proportionality and the Death of Curiosity

"Curiosity killed the cat..." goes the old saying. I suppose that was coined by an overwhelmed parent trying to keep their children's exploring and questioning from getting them in trouble. I like the addendum to the saying better, though, even if it is a false rhyme: "...but satisfaction brought it back!" Curiosity is one of our greatest gifts, at the very heart of exploring, learning, and inventing. People are born curious, and the loss of that curiosity over time is a great human tragedy. Sadly, many children who go to kindergarten bursting with an inquisitive nature gradually lose that love of learning until, just a few years later, teachers struggle to gain their interest in even the most fascinating subjects. As a one-time high school teacher, I know that frustration well. As an unschooling parent, however, I now know that this tragic loss of curiosity can be prevented! First, we have to know how it happens.

That is where the law of inverse proportionality comes in. Simply put, it means that two things are "related so that as one becomes larger, the other becomes smaller." (Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary) Not long ago we were enjoying an explanation of this principle on Khan Academy, when I recognized that the explanation was clear and useful, but fairly abstract. I wanted a real-world example we could relate to, so I used something I probably learned at the Northeast Unschooling Conference. I'm calling it "The Law of The Wall" (bragging rights to whoever gets the musical reference in the name first): "A child's curiosity is inversely proportional to the amount of information adults are trying to force on them." Trying to make children learn is like brushing their teeth with sugar - you're promoting the very decay you hope to prevent.

I can hear the objections coming..."If I don't make my child do their schoolwork, they'll just sit around and [insert fun activity here]." Of course they would, wouldn't you if you had the choice? Or maybe not, because as parents, we've been out of school long enough to start regaining our curiosity. No one is forcing learning on us, and over time we begin to rediscover our natural wonder about the world. Then we naturally wonder what's wrong with our kids, who don't share our fascination with geography, astronomy, or the infinite wonders of global economics. Could it be inverse proportionality? The more enthusiastically we shove information at them, with subtle or overt coercion, the less they are interested.

What is the answer then, for the frazzled and anxious parent watching a child play Donkey Kong instead of directing his or her first Shakespeare production? First of all, recognize that we are learning always and everywhere, even, in some mysterious way beyond my ability to comprehend at the moment, when we are playing Donkey Kong or catapulting colorful but ill-tempered birds at hapless virtual pigs. So relax; the kids will learn what they need to know.

Second, if you have regained your wonder and curiosity, follow it! Forget for the moment about what your child may or may not be learning, and start exploring for yourself. Your own example as a motivated life-long learner is very powerful! My goal is to nurture in my children a lifelong love of learning, and I want to lead the way by my example.

Third, become a resource rather than a pain in the neck. Our job is to provide access to the world, not to force-feed it to our children. As we saw above, that is counter-productive. You can, however, strew your world with a variety of fascinating resources. I don't mean stacking your child's shelves with boring textbooks about what you or someone else supposes he ought to be learning at this age. Let your life be filled with genuinely interesting treasures - well-written, colorful books, movies, events, fascinating friends, travel, community service, discussions, music, magazines, internet resources, clubs, and so on. Have a rich and stimulating (but not overwhelming!) life, and create an environment that nurtures curiosity. Then, as they show signs of curiosity, avoid the tempatation to jump all over it and accidentally stomp out those first few sparks. Give them the freedom and room for their curiosity to grow!

If your child has been in a coercive school setting, or if your method of home education has involved force-feeding, it will take time for their natural curiosity to return. The more you push them, the longer you delay the return of their natural desire to learn - that desire that is innate in all of us. Ask yourself which is more important - today's busy work and the false appearance of a sound education, or becoming a person motivate to learn and capable of doing it on your own? To see the cat once again enjoying its own natural curiosity is enough satisfaction for me!

No comments:

Post a Comment