In praise of curiosity – Will le Fleming

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To start simply: learning is the best part of living. Every day, every week, every year, throughout our lives, we learn. Every new experience; every repeated joy that lands differently because this time round we are older and we respond in a new way; every challenge we overcome – we learn. Sometimes we learn something new and delightful; sometimes we learn what we don’t like, and shape our life more closely around the familiar things that matter. But all the time we are finding out more about what it is to be alive.

Now some of this learning is pragmatic and utilitarian and there is nothing wrong with that. If we were to find ourselves on a desert island, we would need to learn to fish. Sometimes we learn for an accountancy exam, a vocab test, a driving licence. The learning is narrow, necessary, efficient. We acquire the skill or knowledge we need. We move on.

However: we also need learning that is open-eyed and open-ended. Learning that has no purpose beyond discovery itself. Learning that enriches and surprises us; that appears to equip us for no specific task; but that is equipping us to live widely and wisely.

We are all aware that school education is important and that pragmatically it enables other important experiences in the future: access to university and to rewarding careers. However, we’re also aware that over decades it has narrowed. Many of us may remember eccentric teachers with no apparent awareness of exam board requirements who rambled endlessly and delightfully about things that were fascinating, even if not immediately useful. But back then exams mattered less. Universities took candidates with mixed grades. The level of competition was less fierce.

In this more purposeful, more rigorous educational world, all schools face a challenge that requires courage. We must fight for space to learn more than the curriculum specifies. We must fight for digression, cross-reference, red herrings and blind alleys. We must set aside lesson plans now and then to address a student question that leads to topics that will never be assessed, but that might be remembered lifelong.

In short we must nurture curiosity: that great engine of learning that has nothing to do with A*s and yet is the one quality, more than any other, likely to secure them. And we must do this because it is the part of learning that speaks most closely to joy – which in the end is what we seek, and what we long for in our children. There is no success like deep and sustaining joy in life.

Curiosity requires courage in students, too. It is easy to be curious when nothing is at stake. When the pressure of assessment looms it is another matter. There is the temptation to say wait – just tell me what is in the test. What do I need to know? But as soon as we lift our eyes from the immediate horizon, that question becomes much larger. What do you need to know for the test? Perhaps a list of formulae. For life? Well, perhaps a poem whose meaning is opaque, or a scientific experiment that changed the world, or a philosophical debate we could spend our lives trying to answer.

This freedom to think and explore must be at the heart of what The Abbey is. Because in the same way that curiosity is not concerned with top grades and yet helps to secure them, breadth of thought and interest is what achieves the two very different outcomes we all want. It is pragmatic and utilitarian; it is what universities seek; it helps students tick the next box on their list. And at the same time it grounds us, gives us confidence, makes us ready to ask questions and be unafraid where there are no answers. It prepares us to live well.

This week at The Abbey Senior School has been curiosity week. Amid a host of activities there have been talks on time travel and causal loops; the psychology of empathy; the geography of a flat earth; the appeal of boy bands; the limits of human capacity; the meaning of emojis; tortoises in fridges – and much more. It has been invigorating and illuminating. It has reminded us that we are all learning what it is to be human. And it has exemplified our goal and mission. We will help our brilliant students achieve the grades they deserve – but we will be tireless too in helping them acquire a courageous curiosity. That is what allows us to make use of qualifications and talents for our own benefit and for the benefit of all around us. Here’s to the life curious…

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