The important thing is that we never stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. -Albert Einstein
Curiosity is truly a key element in learning. And not just learning at school, but learning anywhere, anytime, and at any age. I remember being a young child and sitting in my grandparents’ backyard watching ants. I’d sit along the stone wall that separated their yard from what I thought was surely an endless forest, (and what I now know was less than a half acre of trees). For the ants the wall was a super highway and they were busily creating their own world, oblivious to the skinny five year old girl with scraggly hair and skinned knees hovering above them. Where were they going? What were they doing? Did they have friends? Family? Do they have tiny TVs in their homes? Did they care about people? Were they smart?
Nowadays I don’t spend a whole lot of time sitting outside and considering ants, though you might see me occasionally stopping for a moment to observe the anthill by the grove of trees near Building C. However, I do continue to ask questions and make observations in so many facets of my life. Of course, a few years have passed between being a curious five year old and a curious forty-five year old. And those years weren’t always filled with the joy of learning. At school, especially during adolescence, I was embarrassed to ask questions. At some point my curiosity was replaced with accuracy. It seemed more important that I please my teachers by knowing the right answer, or that I pretend not to care at all, rather than admit that I didn’t know something. Even if I really wanted to know more, I was reluctant to put myself out there and ask. During those times, the world seemed a little smaller and a little less exciting.
When I got into elementary education in college, I quickly got reacquainted with my old friend curiosity. I was able to see joy and wonder through the eyes of young children. I was learning as much from the students as they were from me. I enjoyed my first years of teaching (first grade) and got a kick out of all the questions and the constant “Why?” Then I stumbled into Montessori, not really knowing how it was going to change my life.
My first years in Montessori were as an assistant in an Upper Elementary classroom. I was, frankly, confused by the level of investment, love for learning, and curiosity of these 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. Sure I expected it from kindergarteners and first graders, but 6th graders? Sixth graders who loved school and were comfortable not knowing things. They were not afraid to ask questions. This was a whole new world. And boy was I learning a lot! It wasn’t until I was teaching in this Upper Elementary classroom that I learned what a turkey vulture was, that I saw baby turtles hatch (on a field trip out in nature), that I learned how to photograph a raindrop on a flower petal. It wasn’t until I was surrounded by curious young people who cared about the world, that I realized it was totally okay and pretty cool to “geek out” on things such as nature, math, geometry, poetry. Why didn’t anyone tell me that knowledge was nothing without curiosity?
For over one hundred years, in Montessori classrooms all over the world, curiosity, knowledge, wonder, and content have all coexisted and relied on each other. The child is guided by their natural love of learning, their interests, and their questions. It is the teacher’s job to make sure that the child achieves a deep understanding of academic subjects while never losing their curiosity. If a child is interested in ants, then that child is able to study ants while they are learning to do math, read, write, etc.
Look up any successful inventor, scientist,author, or leader and it is likely that you will read about how they had mentors, teachers, or parents who encouraged their curiosity. You have probably read about the long list of former Montessori students who are now considered part of the “Creative Elite,” from Julia Child to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Jackie Kennedy to Jeff Bezos and so many more. What they all have in common is that they were educated in a philosophy that not only allows, but expects students of all ages to ask questions, make observations, and spend time in their areas of interest. There are many doors to success–curiosity is the key to unlocking them all.