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Curiosity, the best motivator

My infant life is driven by my infant curiosity: I learn language, I learn to crawl, I learn to stand up. I learn to recover from falling down.

My infant life is driven by my infant curiosity: I learn language, I learn to crawl, I learn to stand up. I learn to recover from falling down.

These experiences are the nucleus of a life filled with learning that opens up new dimensions. We look at what surrounds us, we listen to the sounds around us, we touch and smell what is around us. All these sensory events evoke a question: Why?

As we transition from our infant state to primary school to secondary school to junior college, polytechnic or university, do we manage to keep our curiosity intact? For the most part, no.

How many parents scold their children for asking too many “whys”? How many teachers scold students for asking too many questions?

Along the way, as students in Singapore, we face that great life crossroads, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE). Aware of the major role it plays in determining the path forward, parents invoke tutoring outside school. With a day filled with schoolwork (dominated, I suspect, by memorisation), then afternoons and evenings filled with tutoring, when is there time to be curious — assuming parents have not extinguished our innate curiosity?

Unless we figure out how to reignite our childish curiosity, finding the motivation for lifelong learning will be a struggle.

Why do I assert that curiosity is a critical personal characteristic? First, I find that it’s fun to be curious. While I have a wide range of curiosities, I’m in particular fascinated by spiders. Macro-photography is my passion, and photographing spiders is a way to remind me of events about which I am curious, such as spider behaviour.

Second, lack of curiosity impedes innovation.

My brain mostly does two things: Learning and thinking. Learning is the process of bringing building blocks — composed of new information, data, concepts, skills — into my person. Thinking consists of rearranging all the building blocks into new questions, insights and interpretations.

To innovate, one must establish a balance between feeding one’s brain with building blocks and building new structures with these blocks. Clearly, the chronic learner will never think and, conversely, the chronic thinker can produce nothing from the absence of building blocks.

Curiosity drives the majority of what I do, whether at work or at home. Saturday mornings and evenings are spent exploring the micro world of nature at Queensway Secondary School, Alexandra Hospital Butterfly Trail, Bukit Brown, so on.

At work, my curiosity is focused on why this broke, or how to enable a student to do this or that, or understanding something. With my family, my curiosity is focused on conveying to my children how to use their innate curiosity to motivate themselves or add to the day’s fun.

So at the end of the day, our lives are all about managing curiosity.

Parents and teachers can help in managing a child’s curiosity by recognising curiosity as one of the most important aspects of moving forward in life. The education establishment can find ways to shift learning away from being PSLE-centric.

And then there is Google, which, with help from parents, teachers and tutors, can channel childish curiosity and share the burden of addressing our children’s “whys”. Perhaps, when a child asks why, we should reply: What did you learn from Google? The process of looking for answers engages our children, engages us — and learning takes place.

We have the tools to make our children’s lives fun and filled with curiosity-driven learning.


C Frank Starmer is Associate Dean of Learning Technologies and Professor, Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders Programme, at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School. Education reform is one of his passions.

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