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Education Matters: Making Space for Curiosity

Bentley High School’s Brian Thomas on the importance of curiosity and ways to help kids find time for exploration and self-discovery.

Brian Thomas: Associate head of school / head of the upper school at Bentley.

Pulling into the parking lot behind a visitor’s center in Concord, Massachusetts, I clicked off the air conditioning with a decided “snap.”  The East Coast baked under a brutal mid-summer heat wave last July, and I was making a detour between stops. I pulled over to explore further where I had been only once or twice before. I was on an East Coast “thank you” tour to colleges that have accepted our students over the past few years. I had just visited Williams College and was on my way to Harvard. But I arrived on the outskirts of Cambridge and Boston for a different purpose.

If you have never been to Concord, you will know it quite well from the pages of both your history and literature books. From the “shot heard round the world” in the American Revolutionary War to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists, Concord is to American history as Detroit’s Motown is to our nation’s music: great things happened there and we remember those things with some degree of reverence and nostalgia. On this particular trip, I was on my way to see Thoreau.

Of course, I wasn’t going to visit the actual man himself; Henry David Thoreau died 150 years ago from complications of tuberculosis, having lived most of his childhood and adult years in the same small town for the majority of his life.  “Seeing Thoreau” meant contemplating the very essence of the American soul and a special brand of American Idealism. I desired to learn more about the nature of curiosity and how it influences everything we as educators must try to nurture and grow in our students. 

If you have school-aged children or grandchildren, or if you remember being a child yourself, then you know that someone always helps to ignite curiosity. That person might have encouraged you to take apart an old toy to see how it really worked; perhaps someone whom you were close to read aloud to you at bedtime; and maybe before the ensuing darkness fell, you visited worlds that could only come alive through books and dreams: Middle Earth, Narnia, Eden, Ancient Rome, Atlantis.

Walden Pond // tripadvisor.comVisiting Walden Pond that day, as well as the Emerson and Thoreau family homesteads and the cemetery where the great authors of early American letters are buried, invoked in me the same level of curiosity that I hoped that my colleagues and I inspire in our students. It was that same sense of exploration that comes before dreams and dreaming.

As many of you may know, Thoreau was the man who sat on the edge of the town’s lake for more than two years and thought deeply about how he and his fellow Concordians could live a more simple existence. Thoreau was the kind of guy who would often take the other side of any argument, not because he believed the opposite in what everyone else believed (all the time!), but because taking the opposite side expanded his own thinking. He created his own dialectic, or way of coming to knowledge and truth, in a very particular kind of way in his writing, speaking, and discussions with others. Considered to be a bit of a crackpot by many of his neighbors (and even some of his friends), Thoreau set off into the woods near his house as a kind of “goof” on the “utopian communities” that sprouted all around New England and beyond at the time.

Thoreau did not want people to give up their earthly possessions and live like he lived. He just wanted people to be more aware about the choices they were making, and perhaps live with less clutter in their minds and in their lives. Think 1830s-style McMansions that horrified people who remembered a simpler farming kind of life. Think New England in the 1840s with a deep, deep recession that would rival the circumstances we have just witnessed ourselves these past few years. Think of the rise of increasingly more disconnected people, as they hustled from being a farming society to being bedroom communities where you could commute into “The City” and not have to worry about where your food came from. Finally, think a rather sizeable influx of immigrants, many of them poor and Irish, fleeing terrible famine and poverty in their home country. Sound familiar?

Thoreau's modest cabin in the woods near the town’s lake. // vagobond.comThoreau built a modest cabin in the woods near the town’s lake, away from his Concord friends and family. If Thoreau had lived today, he might have been “unfriended” by most of his closest buddies and probably by some of his family because of his commitment to live a totally original life.

Contrary to some reports that grew after his death, Thoreau was not a misanthropic people avoider. He actually liked people very much. He had a hearty laugh and very quick wit. Thoreau set off into the woods and went to Walden Pond to think and write, but he also traveled to town on some nights while living at Walden Pond to play music and to party. He loved to do a jig to amuse his friends. Of course, Thoreau could be challenging to be around for some because he was always trying to prove a point, any point. He once got arrested for not paying taxes because he didn’t want any part of his money to support the unpopular Mexican-American War. Thoreau was also an abolitionist, although not as strident as others in Concord at that time. Thoreau had the money to pay the poll tax but he wanted to prove a point. The tax collector who arrested him didn’t want to put Thoreau in jail for what would have been considered a very trivial offense at the time, analogous to a speeding ticket. Eventually, Thoreau was bailed out of jail against his will (probably by some family member who was mortified by the specter of sullying the family name). 

Henry David Thoreau // wikipedia.orgDuring my four-hour stopover in Concord, I wanted to see and, most importantly reflect on the emergence of our American spirit of curiosity. At the time, I didn’t know I was going to link Henry David Thoreau with the essential quality that every school child (and adult) should have and develop. This connection happened in these intervening months. Over the summer, my own “desire to know” led me to explore the place where a very modern American version of the world began to be formed. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for “two years, two months, and two days,” so that he could watch the world all around him unfold in surprising and totally unexpected ways. My journey led me to unearth the very nature of what makes us as humans, and myself in particular, curious.

If you want to instill curiosity into your child or want to bring out the same qualities within yourself, as I was driven to do last summer in Concord, where do you start? Curiosity comes from the Latin “curiositatem” or “curiosus” meaning “a careful attention to detail,” or “a desire to know.”

Fostering “a desire to know” in our children can be rather difficult in this age of distractions and distractibility. Think of all of the text messages our children, and their concomitant bits and bytes that get posted on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, and other social media sites. Think of the Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube world that our children get sucked into even as they toggle back and forth between screens on their computers, iPads, and other devices while doing their homework. When do they have the desire to do anything that is authentic and meaningful?

We now have instant access to just about anything we could ever want, and it appears that as a result our very brains are being hardwired to become isolated and incurious. Professor Sherry Turkle of MIT argues that our children are being bombarded to distraction by the illusion of connectedness, but we are sadly mistaken in thinking that living in this advanced technological age isn’t just leaking the curiosity right out of us. (See Sherry Turkle Ted Talk) Is there anything that we as parents and educators can do to help our children (and ourselves) become the voracious creators and curious people that we want them to be? Is curiosity the real edge that we as a people have lost in the 21st century? Here are five examples of what we can do to help our children and ourselves regain that edge:

Try Unplugging:

Being able to disconnect from the ties that bind us to the digital world is one way to encourage your children and students to be curious. Creating dedicated “no technology” spaces—bedrooms, kitchens, and family rooms—can offer young minds a bit of a pause in the veritable onslaught of distractions. It’s hard to hear the ideas that are in every person if our children are constantly connected. Take a literal vacation from technology, whether it is once a day, once a week, once a month, or once a year. You and your children can do without.

Practice Boredom:

Unplugging is one way to bring about what is necessary to hear that inner music that leads to creation and that fosters curiosity. Being bored is the next step in unplugging and it is different than being alone. Unplugging is the physical act of just disconnecting from technology and the other things that can often distract us. Being alone helps us to begin to think about who we truly are and what we truly want from our own lives.

Maker’s Space:

Find a corner of your house, garage, or a room that can be dedicated to just figuring stuff out. The Maker’s Movement in this country has taken off in ways that oftentimes cynics mock. Think of most of the characters on the television program, Portlandia. However, Maker’s spaces in high schools are places where students have a variety of tools at their disposal, both small and large, so that they can complete projects of their choosing or they have been challenged to complete (See mentor.makerspace.com for ideas to get you started). You can do the same thing at home, too. With the demise of most high school shop classes, students are not often given the opportunity to work with their hands, hearts, and minds to create objects that exercise their curiosity. Certainly scouting has done a good job of making some kids into craft explorers. Yet, think of some ways that you can encourage your child to think differently through hand work.

Monthly “Curiosity Dates”:

Get out the calendar section of your local newspaper’s community calendar section (or take a look at Diablo Magazine Online) to come up with “Curiosity Dates” to help your child explore the great things that are happening in your area. Making the time to get off the coach or encouraging kids to stop just “doing school,” as Denise Pope would say, will open them up to worlds of possibilities beyond mostly passive endeavors, like social media, video games, and television. Heading to the Tech Museum in San Jose or the Exploratorium in San Francisco may get the juices flowing. The experts and docents at these excellent museums and institutions can give you further suggestions to extend the thinking about opportunities.

Know Nature:

Get out into the wilderness. Whether it’s Mount Dinali or Mount Diablo, take off somewhere with your child and learn to listen closely to that inner voice that tells you who you really are. Henry David Thoreau wanted to emulate his good friend, mentor, and employer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. After his stint at Walden Pond, Thoreau was transformed. The grand experiment forced him to re-enter the world with a greater degree of clarity about his own world, to confront the inevitability of what lies ahead for all of us, and to perfect the words in his most important work, Walden. Thoreau’s curious “goof” is a good lesson for other humble travelers like me who “desire to know” more, too.


Works referenced:

Sullivan Robert. The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism
     Really Meant. Harper, 2009.

More on curiosity from Physicist Richard Feynman:


Brian Thomas (@brianwthomas) is the Associate Head of School and Head of the Upper School at Bentley School in Lafayette whose Latin motto, Scire Desider, means, “I desire to know.” He's the former head of school of Presidio Hill School, San Francisco, and the executive director/high school designer at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory School in Las Vegas. He has a 23-year career as a teacher and administrator in independent and public schools. Thomas is also an Emmy-winning actor (1988) and is the author of articles and a speaker about education and parenting issues.


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