An excellent book about the importance of the desire to know.

October 26, 2014

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It by Ian Leslie

Published in April of 2014.

Ian Leslie’s fine new book Curious constitutes an excellent bridge between the two sides of the facts vs. experiences learning debate.  On one side we have a more traditional academic view, in which the assimilation of a body of content (the curriculum) is understood as a necessary foundation for advancement in a particular discipline of study.  On the other we have educators who prioritize experiential and active learning over the transmission of facts.   

In Curious, Leslie makes the argument that curiosity may be the most important mental habit one can develop, but this state of mind depends on a rich storehouse of prior knowledge.  He is critical Sir Ken Robinson and the progressive critique of traditional educational methods.  In Leslie’s construction, a disciplined and hard-fought mastery of a range of basic information is a necessary condition for developing an active and searching frame of mind.

Leslie is also worried about the impact of Google and Siri on learning.  Instantly available answers may discourage deeper questioning and exploration.  If puzzles are easier to solve we may be less like to want to tackle deeper mysteries.   We learn things better when learning is hard.  There is a level of desirable difficulty in learning.   If Google makes learning feel too easy we may lose our desire to tackle hard problems.  An unintended consequence of an abundance of information may be to inhibit the hard mental work necessary to acquire and connect disparate sources of data.

This is not to say that Curious is a book that is anti-technological.  Nor is Curious one of those books that argues that we are dumber than the previous generation, and that we should all permanently close our laptops and sever our net connections.  Leslie only wants us to think hard about how we interact with the wealth of information now at our disposal. 

While Leslie does not use these terms, Curious could be read as a book length defense of a liberal arts education.  

The author sites a range of evidence to argue that the most curious people do best in the labor market, and that employers are increasingly looking for curious hires.   Success in the increasingly competitive job market requires a T-shaped set of skills, one in which individuals have both deep subject matter expertise (the vertical line on the T), and a wide set of interests and knowledge (the horizontal line of the T).  A T-shaped mental profile will equip graduates to move across the 10 or 12 different jobs that are expected to define a 21st century career.  Flexibility and the ability to learn new things are complementary to specialized sets of expertise.

Should we be more explicit about developing the habit of curiosity in our learning objectives and institutional missions?

Should curiosity be listed as a key attribute in our employment position descriptions?

I’m curious about what are you reading?


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