Saturday, May 11, 2013

Curiosity is the Engine of Achievement

The title is a quote from a Ken Robinson Education TED talk. Another is "Teaching is not a delivery system." It's worth a listen:

One quibble. He says that the purpose of education is learning. I know that's obvious, but it's also easily misplaced, because it leads to the business of measuring learning. The truth is that nobody really knows what "learning" is, and it's probably not one thing at all. The simple-minded view that a teacher shows you how to perform a task, and then you can do it yourself is ubiquitous, but dangerously incomplete. Going back to the title of the post, the real purpose of education is to produce achievement. But schools almost uniformly get a pass on this--students aren't expected to achieve anything real, just pass tests. Ironically perhaps, this is absolutely not true in athletics, where it's not enough to play a good practice game. Nobody really cares about that.

The effect of this shift in perspective is subtle but powerful. If we want achievement, we should cultivate curiosity and intrinsic motivation, and this is a completely different pedagogy than lecture-test-certify. The thesis of an ongoing research project at my college is that the Internet allows the kind of direct engagement with the world that makes this achievement possible in all areas of study. Others are moving in that direction too. You can see an example in Auburn University's Quality Enhancement Plan. They don't take the idea as far as we are trying to, but it's a very nice project, and I love the tag line: Learn it. Live it. Share it.


  1. Anonymous11:11 AM

    Nice post, Dave -- thank you for this insight, and for sharing it. Can you say more or provide a link to the "ongoing research project" at your college? Ken O'Donnell

    1. Hi Ken, I first wrote about the idea in "The End of Preparation" ( The idea is to not just take existing coursework and try to make portfolio material out of it, but to create new kinds of assignments that are externally-oriented from the beginning. I did that in my calculus class this semester, and will write a separate post on it next week, when all the projects will be in. To qualify, the topic of the project has to be something that someone cares about--it can't be 'practice' work. This idea just mimics what's always been done in the visual and performing arts, but in my experience is not done much in math. The details will follow in another post, but several students took on campus safety issues, measuring speeds of cars and skateboards. One of them presented her work to the campus safety committee, and then was asked to join the group. This is a small example, but it has most of the elements we're looking for. The capstone to it would be, e.g. a professional blog post where the student talks about her work. Another part of the project is to inventory the college's product in terms of visible student work as it links back to the college via search engines. More about that later too. Please contact me via email if you want.

    2. Dave, I enjoyed the post. I'm glad to hear that you're encouraging students to write, not just get the right answer. In my work helping companies create value from their Web presence, it's becoming vital for all team members to continue to the corporate blog. It's a great tool to show prospective clients what you can do, not just tell them.