Arjun Shankar and Perry Zurn
Curiosity as restless questioning, as movement toward the revelation of something hidden, as a question verbalized or not, as search for clarity, as a moment of attention, suggestion, and vigilance, constitutes an integral part of the phenomenon of being alive.
—Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom
We want to begin with a story from a teacher training session, entitled “Curiosity in the Classroom,” that Arjun Shankar and Mariam Durrani ran with New York City school teachers in 2013. The teachers were from all over the city, old and young, more experienced and less experienced, and each had found out about this workshop through different networks—a fellow teacher, an email chain, a Facebook group, and so on. What they had in common was an unquestioned enthusiasm about curiosity. Before entering the room, they all already believed in its value and felt, like most teachers, that it was an essential component of any classroom experience.
Yet these teachers were also suspicious. They had been to too many professional development workshops in the past, each of which had advertised itself as the next big thing for their classrooms. And, over the course of the workshop, the teachers began to voice their concerns about a curiosity-centric pedagogy. As any teacher will tell you—whether in K-12 or higher education—bureaucratic stipulations, requirements, state objectives, and grading put heavy constraints on how and what teachers can teach.1 Most of the teachers were overwhelmed by it all. Yes, they loved to teach and wanted to do right by their students, but at the same time they felt there were competing priorities they could not neglect. Given that most of them were working in some of the most underresourced schools in the city, with students who needed a great amount of attention, curiosity seemed like a privilege they could not afford. In other words, they were grappling firsthand with the system of racial capitalism2 that continues to produce schools “not concerned with curiosity,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “but [with] compliance.”3
For these teachers, curiosity was an exception and exceptional. They began to tell stories about fleeting instances of curiosity in the classroom, moments when an especially curious student would question, explore, and discover without any extra help. They recalled a time when a twelve-year-old boy raised his hand more often than usual or when a ten-year-old girl decided to research a subject she had learned about just a few days earlier. In these cases, teachers knew that students were demonstrating curiosity in their classrooms. Sometimes they even felt that they did things to produce this curiosity in the students. But they didn’t have a critical awareness of why it was happening and, therefore, could not go about systematically facilitating a curiosity-based classroom. Instead, they relied on narratives that continued to suggest curiosity was ad-hoc, usually based on the “natural curiosity” of a special student.
The New York City teachers workshop thus raised several fundamental questions: Why do we as educators—whether in K-12, college, or other educational settings—know that curiosity is central to education but not know how to cultivate it? Is curiosity naturally vibrant in all students or more robust in exceptional students? Can students be taught to be curious (and, for that matter, can teachers be taught how to teach students to be curious)? How can curiosity be cultivated within and despite the bureaucratic structures and pragmatic requirements so pronounced in most twenty-first-century educational institutions and contexts? Finally, how do we cultivate a curiosity that is politically vibrant rather than harmlessly compliant?
In what follows, we offer a preliminary account of why and how to consciously cultivate curiosity in contemporary learning environments. First, we begin by discussing some of the educational theory upon which curiosity-centric classrooms might be built: experiential learning pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, critical pedagogy, and abolitionist pedagogy. Second, recognizing that our social, cultural, political, and economic processes all shape who can be curious, about what, and when, we then formulate what we call a critically curious pedagogy. Critically curious pedagogy aims to stay accountable to the complex sociopolitical processes in and against which curiosity is either cultivated or suppressed. Such pedagogy relies on the affective practices of reflexivity, mindfulness, empathy, uncertainty, and transformative questioning. Third, we identify several key elements of curiosity-based assignments by which teacher–learners from all disciplinary backgrounds—whether they be mathematicians, engineers, anthropologists, psychologists, or philosophers—can facilitate the growth of critical curiosity in their students. These elements include student leadership, a research mindset, collaborative environments, multimodal outputs, real-life applications, and community engagement. Finally, we reflect on future directions in the theory and praxis of curiosity-centric learning environments. It is our hope that this chapter provides a framework for members of teacher–learner communities of all sorts to become aware of and cultivate their own curiosity with one another.
Education and the Politics of Curiosity
Many, if not most, K-12 and college educators typically think of curiosity simply as a natural and cultivatable capacity in their students. This conception stems from a long tradition in the philosophy and psychology of education that treats curiosity as a universal human characteristic, subject to standard behavioral development and training. This conception originates in the modernist intellectual tradition, with the likes of Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes, and later incorporates ideologies regarding “fixed” capacities that emerged as part of scientific racism’s lasting legacy. John Locke, perhaps one of this tradition’s more eloquent spokesmen on the subject of curiosity, states quite plainly that curiosity is “the great instrument nature has provided to remove . . . ignorance,” and as such “ought to be encouraged” in children through various means, including the incremental complexification of questions, the identification of reliable sources of information, and the importance of trial and error in the search for knowledge.4
While widely influential, this modernist perspective has certain important limitations. First, it assumes a unified concept of curiosity and therefore fails to diversify curiosity into curiosities. If they are not careful, practitioners may well miss curiosity as it modulates across students of different personalities and capabilities, especially among neuroatypical learners,5 as well as across social identities and cultural contexts. Second, it often replicates dated techniques for cultivating curiosity, failing not only to account for neuroflexibility but to attend to curiosity in its ecological contexts.6 Many practitioners reproduce learning environments in which rote memorization, lecturing, strict rules and procedures, and exam-based evaluation are the norm. These approaches may carefully attend to pedagogical questions such as how to learn the facts or content of a subject, but they do very little to address the very pedagogy of questioning—that is, how to ask questions and what questions to ask. Third, these simplistic pedagogical strategies have especially failed minoritized populations. Students of color, for example, have been assumed as less curious, and less capable, given the white-Western heritage of mapping intellectual capacity on to imaginary typologies of racial difference. Some practitioners, perhaps subconsciously and because of implicit biases, predetermine what types of student can be curious and therefore delimit their students’ opportunities for educational attainment and mobility. As such, the traditional educational framework does little to democratize, deepen, and diversify our understanding of how curiosity manifests itself—and how it can be cultivated—in people’s everyday lives.
How do we make space for curiosity in its multiplicity, across the human experience, while also framing its manifestations within social processes? And how do we organically cultivate such a curiosity in children, young adults, and beyond? To tackle these questions, we turn to four powerful pedagogical traditions that counter the hegemonic system of educational praxis: (1) experiential learning pedagogy, (2) feminist pedagogy, (3) critical pedagogy, and (4) abolitionist pedagogy. These traditions not only reiterate the natural and developmental character of curiosity but supplement the modernist framework with a functional understanding of curiosity as environmentally interconnected, socially embedded, and politically dynamic. It is upon these traditions that we then build our own account of a critically curious pedagogy, which places curiosity squarely within an innovative, materialist framework requisite for our hyperconnected and yet fractured world.
Experiential learning pedagogy stems primarily from the work of John Dewey. Against the reigning educational theory and customs of his time, which conceptualized the student atomistically as an isolable individual with potentialities all his or her own, Dewey insisted that learning is a dynamic, experiential process, rooted in the learner’s physical and social environments and integral to the construction of democracy.7 Dewey’s philosophy was predicated on the concept of “flexible aims,” which allowed for a range of interpretations of information and the ability to shift the direction of one’s actions based on new information. Thus learners learn not according to ideological principles, canons, or schemas of truth but according to what works in the everyday process of inquiry and experimentation, adaption, and cooperation.8 For Dewey this activates what is always a multidimensional intelligence and a vibrant imagination.9 It also builds on curiosity. Curiosity is a naturally occurring openness to experience that develops in three stages: (1) physiological curiosity, (2) social curiosity, and (3) intellectual curiosity.10 Children effortlessly move from poking at something, to asking someone what it is, and to finally considering the thing itself in connection with other problems they have solved and conceptual material they have acquired. Because curiosity can be “fossilized” through routine and dogmatic instruction, however, not only must education be reimagined to organically nurture curiosity, but teachers themselves must be wary of their own waning interests and capacity for openness. “With respect to curiosity,” Dewey sagely notes, “the teacher usually has more to learn than to teach.”11 If learning is experiential, so must curiosity be.
Feminist pedagogy—or, perhaps more appropriately, feminist pedagogies—begins with the recognition that classical educational theory and practice was developed by and for certain groups of people and not others: chiefly, women and girls. Feminist pedagogy focuses on who is in the classroom and how that should or could change the learning process. Against Dewey’s abstract notions of the individual and community, feminist pedagogues ask, “Which individual? Which community? And what are the complex and sometimes inconsistent relationships between them?”12 Taking patriarchy as paradigmatic of unjust hierarchies (and therefore taking gender justice as a springboard to social liberation writ large), feminist pedagogy aims to decolonize curriculum, invest in antiracist praxis, implement universal design, and queer the classroom.13 It also aims to fundamentally disrupt the teacher/student dyad by treating learners as whole persons, engaging learners in the process of knowledge creation, developing real world applications, and maintaining community accountability.14 Granting the situatedness of curiosity, feminist pedagogues work to identify and critically engage the different positionalities from which questions are inherited, generated, pursued, or suppressed.15 A “feminist curiosity,” as Cynthia Enloe puts it, therefore involves not only “taking women’s lives seriously” but taking seriously a whole slew of things that have been “infantilized, trivialized, ignored,” or left “unquestioned”—including curiosity itself.16
Critical pedagogy, and the critical Marxist tradition from which it emerged, counteracts the forces of systemic economic and political oppression by critically attending to—and getting curious about—how hegemonic power relations, and the economic bases for these relations, inform educational environments.17 For critical pedagogues, intellectuals and teachers have traditionally been a part of the control apparatus, generating and promulgating knowledge that works at the behest of capitalist interests and therefore maintains social hegemony. For Antonio Gramsci, the traditional intellectual ought to be replaced by the organic intellectual, whose knowledge and interests are based on their everyday experience and consciousness of class position and class oppression.18 Likewise, for Paulo Freire, teachers must develop methods and strategies by which to resist political and economic inequities in the classroom.19 From a critical pedagogical perspective, “education can only be liberatory when everyone claims knowledge as a field in which we labor,”20 and claims curiosity as a tool by which we labor in that field. While Freire grants a certain “common sense” curiosity, present in all learners, he aims to facilitate a “critical” curiosity. Critical curiosity is a movement of “attention, suggestion, and vigilance” vital to the “construction and reconstruction” of history and society, as led by Global South communities.21 Through it, instrumental rationality and mechanized education, so central to capitalist colonial interests, are deconstructed through the ethical commitments, aesthetic creation, and affective praxis of teacher–learner communities at the margins.22 Curiosity, in this context, is viewed within a political–economic frame: What kind of curiosity, exploration, and questioning is valued because it works toward capitalist interests, and what kind of curiosity is seen as subversive precisely because it seeks to challenge hegemonic power relations?23
Finally, abolitionist pedagogy takes seriously a curiosity embedded in the pedagogical strategies and tactics that antiracist pedagogues have deployed in order to begin the work of freeing all of us from racism’s violent effects. Emerging from the Du Boisian and the Black feminist traditions, these pedagogues argue that critical perspectives are incomplete without a simultaneous recognition of our racist histories and remind us that one of the greatest problems of the twenty-first century continues to be the “global color line.”24 This global color line has structured and continues to structure curiosity, determining who can and should be curious and who is, at best, an object of racist curiosity. As such, abolitionist pedagogies reintroduce histories that have been systematically erased—those of indigenous and formerly enslaved peoples—and forcefully demystify the mythologies of race that continue to undergird our public discourses. They also seek to bring to the fore educational models that actively challenge the pedagogies of whiteness that have subsumed children’s curiosity, revealing how certain assessments, standards, and teaching methodologies work to maintain white supremacy. Carter G. Woodson, author of The Mis-Education of the Negro and staunch advocate for “Negro History week” (the precursor to Black History month), argued that schooling cultivated an anti-Blackness that was inextricably linked to the violence Black people experienced, and, as such, developing curricula that makes all of us sincerely curious about the Black experience is one step toward liberation for all.25 In this context curiosity must be seen as part of an antiracist struggle, continuously cracking open those narratives that maintain supremacy and superiority, and hail genocidal histories as “destiny.”26 Drawing on the concept of “fugitive pedagogy,” developed by historian Jarvis R. Givens and rooted in “the subversive intellectual and embodied acts African Americans employed to navigate anti-Black constraints within the American schooling project,”27 we might develop tactics of fugitive curiosity. These subversive lines of questioning challenge the racist constraints on learning and draw us toward a model of curiosity that is liberatory rather than oppressive.
Today the abolitionist framework has developed beyond its roots in emancipation and has become a clarion call for liberation more generally, “an immoderate rejection of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, settler-colonialism, border imperialism, political hierarchy, and the rule of capital.”28 As Angela Davis insists, abolition is both the work of tearing down and building up, critiquing all nodes of systemic oppression and creating rich, community-based care systems in their place.29 As such, abolitionist pedagogy is experiential, feminist, critical, and more. Responsive to the flexible aims of diverse learning communities, it is committed to two fundamental questions: “What do we need? And how do we get there?” Abolitionist pedagogy stands ready to abolish the academy as it is and cultivate something else, as it might be. A learner who is empowered to hear themselves and their communities speak. A teacher who is willing to be disoriented by the collective work of critical curiosity and political imagination.30 A society always poised to unravel its present state. A university that does not incorporate and confine difference but reimagines itself from the inside out in response to social unrest and political resistance.31 A learning community that courts new modes and methods of study, in and outside the classroom.32 Abolitionist pedagogy—and indeed the future of critically curious pedagogy—involves radically reimagining the very possibilities and potentialities of learning.
Taken together, these four pedagogical traditions—experiential learning pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, critical pedagogy, and abolitionist pedagogy—provide a challenging new framework through which to understand and cultivate curiosity in the classroom. They push pedagogues to think beyond particular content-based rules, concepts, or principles, to reconceptualize learning as a dynamic learner-driven process, and to identify and resist the hierarchies implicit in traditional classrooms and systems of knowledge. They underscore that curiosity is a natural capacity, subject to developmental training and growth, but they also emphasize that curiosity is environmentally interconnected, socially embedded, and politically dynamic. Curiosity is capable of being trained in ways that reinforce established patterns of thought, including those that subtend social inequalities, or in ways that are truly innovative, pursuing the most pressing scientific and political questions of our times in ways that radically reconfigure our collective values and imagination. It is the pedagogues’ calling to facilitate precisely this work. When they root what is to be learned and how it is to be learned in the students themselves—asking who they are, what they know, and where they come from—students’ own curiosity can beget insights that can change how we understand the concepts under study. By situating student curiosity within multiple ecologies—of the mind, the classroom, the society, and beyond—teachers can lay the groundwork for a critically curious pedagogy.
Toward a Critically Curious Pedagogy
Building on these rich resources in educational theory, we turn our attention now to what we call a critically curious pedagogy. A critically curious pedagogy necessarily reshapes our educational praxis on the bedrock of a different type of learning, one that not only resists the rigid regimens of traditional instruction and the brittle distinction between teacher and learner but also embraces the socially embedded and political character of transformative learning.33 Paulo Freire argues that such an approach to life equips people to explore humanity in its totality: asking questions of one another, voicing their opinions, developing new perspectives, and co-constructing and expanding their realities.34 Therefore, challenging our assumptions about what learning is, where it happens, and from whom we can learn is a prerequisite for a critically curious pedagogy. All of this requires a change of habits and even a change in feeling. In what follows, we propose several key affective practices that are fundamental to a critically curious pedagogy. These include the following: (1) practicing sincere self-reflexivity; (2) developing an empathic stance; (3) creating and enjoying uncertainty rather than resolving or resisting it; and (4) questioning sociocultural norms and challenging structures and institutions of power.
Reflexivity, in its simplest form, involves self-consciously interrogating the relationship between teachers and their students. It means asking questions regarding how we might alter ongoing scientific and sociocultural investments that reproduce reductive hypotheses, neoliberal academic priorities, supremacist logics, and colonial social relations in our teaching methodologies. We draw specifically from the discipline of anthropology for this discussion because anthropologists have had longstanding debates regarding reflexivity, given their methodological investment in ethnography and the discipline’s history of facilitating (settler)colonial governance.35 In response, many anthropologists have sought to find means by which to enact a sincere reflexivity.36 A sincere reflexivity takes seriously intersubjectivity, coevalness, and our interlocutors as complete, agential, affective beings like ourselves. As such, sincerity foregrounds our shared humanity and ensures we are not constructing “objects of curiosity” as we enter into research relationships.37 All too often, researchers allow their inherited assumptions to go unidentified, their biases to go unchallenged, and therefore their subjects of research are impoverished, objectified, and even dehumanized. We can extend this idea of reflexivity beyond the confines of research into our teaching and learning practices as well. When we are sincerely self-reflexive, we are able to undertake self-critique and we allow for our own fallibility when living and working in the midst of those who are as human as we are. This humility, in turn, provides openings for genuine simultaneity of teaching and learning that, in turn, can become the basis for cultivating a critical curiosity.
And as a sincere reflexivity seems to imply, openness to another also involves empathic communication, including the ability to listen, whether another person is right in front of us or far away in space or time. Certain practices of curiosity reinforce existing beliefs, manage to dehumanize Others, and even prevent the symbiotic relations within and between human and nonhuman ecologies.38 An empathic curiosity begins with a form of questioning that sincerely shows interest in ideas, feelings, states, and circumstances beyond oneself and one’s beliefs, whether expressed in words or not.39 Even when those we seek to relate to are not human, we can still bring an empathy to our endeavor, thinking with questions such as, “Why is the cat looking at me?” “How does a forest think?” or “What does a picture want?”; such questions open up the possibility that these things may not exist solely for the purpose of our discovery.40 To engage in a critical curiosity, then, involves a conscious communication of empathic inquiry that, and this is essential, is ideally registered as such by the listener, the species companion, the collaborator, the patient, or the research subject.41 The critically curious classroom is marked by a culture of questioning that stems from an emotional place of care and signals interest rather than unproductive criticism. In practice this also means that critically curious learners must not only take into account their own positions but the positions of those they encounter. Gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, and the like change how inquiry is felt and, in turn, we must continuously shift how we inquire to take the communicative differences of our listeners and collaborators seriously.
In order for a critically curious pedagogy to emerge, however, all those involved must also be willing to create and enjoy an environment of uncertainty rather than resolve or resist it.42 In much of our current educational system, uncertainty has been all but eradicated as we teach students that they should not take risks and should only ask questions for which answers are easily available. Indeed, much of our standardized testing model exacerbates this issue, creating a culture of fact seeking that does little to cultivate in students the ability to suspend themselves in the unknown. In fact, students are taught to avoid such situations and begin to link the experience of uncertainty with negative emotions: fear, anxiety, and the like. They refrain from raising their hands because of the risk of getting wrong answers or asking a question that will reveal their lack of knowledge. But uncertainty and the experience of not knowing can be enjoyable and exciting, spurring on our creative inquiry rather than foreclosing it when appropriately cultivated. When we cultivate in students the ability to live with the unknown and remain flexible in their stances, we equip them to engage with their environments without the fear of losing their sense of self when faced with differences, unknowns, or uncertainties, all of which facilitate critical curiosity.
Finally, and perhaps most important, a critical curiosity unsettles taken-for-granted theorems, power structures, and social norms, thereby producing the possibility of local struggles that might dislodge hierarchies that would otherwise remain entrenched.43 When the “truths” of the past—who we are as a people, culture, nation, society—are open to continuous critical inquiry and reconstruction, we will interrogate what we have learned like the best scientific researchers do, reminding us that any theory is valuable only insofar as it is open to its own disproof. Indeed, if Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions tells us anything, it is this: when we begin to challenge our basic assumptions, incorporate perspectives and ideas that may seem outside of what we have taken for granted scientifically, politically, and socioculturally, we open the space to discover that the time and the space we live in are not quite as self-evident as we may have once believed. We might begin to incorporate new histories and pedagogies that come out of the indigenous and Black radical traditions, for example, which challenge our dearly held assumptions, critique white imperial legacies, and push our curiosity in new directions.44
To be truly critically curious, then, will also by definition lead us to question the status quo, its existing dogmas and longstanding investments, not only in light of the search for truth but also in light of ongoing efforts to achieve environmental, social, and cognitive justice. In his Talk to Teachers, James Baldwin writes:
The paradox of education is precisely this—that as we become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions. . . . To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions. . . . But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.45
This paradox is precisely the space in which critical curiosity functions, supporting society by continuing to challenge its structures of power and knowledge. For a critically curious person and one who believes in a critically curious pedagogy, there are no sites that are not open to questioning and, therefore, sites of power and knowledge are as much open to questioning as any others.
Engaging actively in challenging power/knowledge structures is not easy. An affective praxis of critical curiosity is a much harder thing to enact, relying on each of the fundamental characteristics discussed above and forcing us to reckon with the fact that our personal lives are political and our silences (what we do not question) are as much an act of political decision-making as what we voice. In some ways, we see critical curiosity as an ideal,46 a never-ending process of unfolding that involves sincerity and the ability to admit wrong and struggle for change no matter how hard or how long it takes. Most of us who have lived on this planet have had our minds colonized, infused with sexist and homophobic ideologies, burdened by capitalist desires, trained by ableism to stigmatize mental unwellness, and so on. Given these starting points, it makes sense that the kind of change we are advocating for here will take time, energy, and the ability to at once take responsibility for our roles in exacerbating and upholding structures of violence while also finding ways to be fair and forgiving to ourselves. Most of all, what a critical curiosity relies on, as Perry Zurn reminds, is a hopefulness: a hope that we can change, that the world around us can change, and that we might be capable of something else. This hope, Sandy Grande cautions, must not fall into a future-orientation that erases our past but instead must be “a hope that lives in contingency with the past.”47 This process necessarily results in a radical reshaping of ourselves and our worlds.48 It is in this sense that a critical curiosity is also a radical curiosity.
Curiosity in the Classroom: Developing Assignments
Thus far we have sought to outline some of the fundamental precepts of an educational model founded on critical curiosity. But how does this look in practice, in our differing classroom settings or even more broadly in our labs, libraries, social media discussions, interfaith community dialogues, and the like? What kinds of activities and assignments might we develop and deploy and to what end? Indeed, our claim is that a critically curious pedagogy, because it allows for multiplicity and sociocultural contextualization, is as important for professors in the natural sciences as it is for those in the humanities and social sciences. And while there will be inevitable differences that emerge based on our specific content-foci and community of practice, the kinds of shifts in pedagogical approach we advocate for here can be implemented in any of these contexts. Furthermore, while we will use the vocabulary of the classroom—teacher/student, and so on—we trust that those in other social contexts will also find the suggestions below useful and applicable.
Some have continued to propagate the myth that cultivating curiosity is simply about asking more and better questions. But the truth is, cultivating curiosity is not easy and involves much more than asking many questions or the “right question.” We have found several practices especially useful when seeking to infuse curiosity into our classrooms: (1) bringing students into the process of deciding on assignment goals and content, (2) making curiosity an explicit part of the assignment prompt, (3) cultivating a research mindset in students through the assignment protocol, (4) providing multimodal variations to assignment structure, (5) linking assignments to students’ experiences outside of class, and (6) creating a collaborative environment in which assignment outputs can be discussed. Insofar as these practices aid in critical questioning, dialogical engagement, democratizing the classroom, and overturning ideological schemas and social hierarchies, they together reflect the first steps toward integrating experiential, feminist, critical, and abolitionist pedagogical commitments into the classroom. We recognize, however, that this process—and, indeed, the further work of decolonizing pedagogical praxis—is continuous and iterative.
First, an assignment might begin with curiosities voiced by students or, perhaps more appropriately, through dialogue not only between teacher and student but between all participants in a (class)room. Indeed, if instructors want to cultivate curiosity in their students, they must resist the urge to develop assignments that provide too many prescriptive objectives. While all courses will have subject-specific concepts that students are required to learn, instructors can always find ways to allow students to set areas of inquiry within these subjects that reflect their own interests and questions. For example, in a course on urbanization, students might choose a city or an aspect of urban planning that they find most interesting. And, when they articulate their choice, they could frame their decisions using the rhetoric of curiosity. Instructors might even require that students write a short statement in which they explicitly describe why they are curious about this subject based on personal experience, previous research, and the like. You may find that some students resist this more “open” and student-driven approach to assignments, seeking to receive simple yes/no, right/wrong, teacher-driven questions, assignments, and protocols. When students express resistance, these moments can become essential opportunities to reflect on how and why their educational socialization may have delimited their ability for curious exploration.49
Second, the assignment should make curiosity explicit rather than implicit. While it may seem simple, articulating that an assignment is intended to provide a framework to discuss and invoke curiosity helps to direct students’ attention to curiosity as its own site for cultivation. In our classroom experiences, we have found that students remark over and over again that they had no idea just how differently they would approach their learning when they approached it through the lens of curiosity. All too often they remark that they now “see curiosity everywhere.” In other words, they are becoming mindful of curiosity in their everyday lives. The results of this new mindfulness can be extremely empowering for students who have had so many classroom experiences that dismiss their curiosity or erase the cultivation of curiosity from classroom objectives.
Third, the assignment should cultivate a research mindset in the student, while perhaps gaining an awareness of the pitfalls of many traditional research paradigms. We all have many questions that briefly flit through our minds and that we leave unexplored. This is natural given the inexhaustibility of potential avenues for inquiry and the limitations on our time. But when we are especially curious, we are in fact driven to ask a question and seek its answer.50 Yet this process of inquiry is not quite as simple as asking and answering. In fact, many students lose their curiosity not because they don’t want to ask questions but because they have been dissuaded from satiating their curiosity and, in turn, have not been taught how to satiate their curiosity. When students develop the skills by which to satiate their curiosity, they are likely to continue on their own, well beyond the confines of the classroom. As such, assignments must draw students into the basic precepts of inquiry: How do I ask questions? Where do I go to answer questions? What research methodologies might I employ to discover an answer? How do I deepen my site of inquiry? In answering these questions, we might utilize elements of a Participatory Research framework,51 which specifically focuses on research toward collective action and decenters any single researcher’s expertise when deriving these insights. At the same time, research methods should attend to the problematics of the research process: When students analyze and present data, how varied are their results and why? What does this tell us about how we experience reality and, in turn, the way that our objects of curiosity are shaped by how we approach questioning?
Fourth, the assignment should provide multimodal variations. All too often, even when instructors seek to cultivate curiosity, they focus on the content of a course rather than the form of an assignment. And in so doing, instructors continue to rely on traditional writing assignments or exams. However, form and content are inextricably linked52 and, when students are provided different methods and forms of exploration, their curiosity can go in multiple, unique directions. For example, when a student is invited to make a film on a concept rather than write an essay or take a test, they become curious about film technology, editing, and a whole slew of other aspects of form even as they ask ever deeper questions about the course’s content. But the exploration of form allows a kind of critical awareness that otherwise might not be possible: when we see how things are made, we begin to understand that all of our productions, whether in film, focus group, text, formula, or experimental design, have been created by someone to tell a particular story for a particular audience with a particular ideology.53 And this awareness is part and parcel of a critical curiosity. Providing assignments using multiple modalities and research methods has the added benefit of facilitating learning based on a student’s varying intelligences and strengths.54 If, for example, a student is more comfortable working in sound, they are more likely to explore their curiosity if provided this platform rather than the traditional essay or exam.
Fifth, assignments should be linked to experiential moments: a walk down the street, a TV show, an engineering problem, or even a close relationship could be fodder for our curiosity.55 Such approaches build upon educational discourses that ask teachers to facilitate students’ ability to make text-to-text, text-to-world, and text-to-self connections. What we know is also part and parcel of expanding our spheres of curiosity. This model can be easily applied to those working in higher education as well. Civil engineering professors can animate the models, equations, and theories learned in class through experiential assignments—or better yet, makerspaces—that get students to engage a real-world physical problem they encounter. In so doing, professors can get students to critically assess their physical environments, learn the mathematical bases for human-made constructions, while also seeing that such decision-making has social implications for the movement of people through space. Professors in mathematics, neuroscience, anthropology, philosophy, and the like can all create similar assignments, providing students the opportunity to think with concepts beyond the classroom and have problems emerge from their movement in the world(s) they inhabit.
Finally, the assignment must live within a collaborative environment in which discussion and co-creation is encouraged. Sharing work, redrafting, asking questions about the choices made and the discoveries begot is as important as the work itself. Peer-to-peer and university–community dialogue helps students to understand that curiosity is multiple and can move in different directions. And in this environment students will begin to deepen their understanding of curiosity, incorporating new types of curiosity into their praxis based on their exposure to the types of curiosity demonstrated by their classmates and community partners.56 As such, instructors should embed peer-to-peer engagement and community engagement into their courses, signaling to students that they will be sharing and co-creating work at various moments during the semester. At first, such exposure may be anxiety producing for students who are not used to co-creating or sharing work frequently. However, for students to become still more deeply curious, they must begin to feel comfortable with sharing their ideas, taking risks, and reveling in the uncertainty of knowing that their ideas are always unfinished and can be further improved with the critical curiosity of their peers and community members. Peer-to-peer and community engagement permits ideas and innovations to be sharpened with and alongside the people for whom they most matter.
Together, these shifts in how we conceive of our classroom assignments can lay the groundwork for a richer curiosity-based praxis and, we believe, a more curious future. We now turn to precisely that future. Where might all of this newfound curiosity take us as we imagine new research sites, pedagogical possibilities, institutional restructurings, and transformative relationships?
As we close we recall something John L. Jackson Jr. will often reiterate: “Every film always begets its sequel.” This framing is an especially fitting characterization for an essay on teaching curiosity. Curiosity is nothing else if not an infinite regress toward evermore expansive sites of inquiry, connections between ideas, and reconstructions of our realities. And so we cannot help but acknowledge the questions we have left unanswered and the many insights yet to emerge from our curious readers.
By way of conclusion, we want to explore, for a moment, where we think a critically curious pedagogy could and should go in the future. First, all too often curiosity has been overdetermined by an attention to children and primary educational contexts. While it is true that children’s curiosity and the continued exploration of its manifestation is quite important, we would like to see more attention paid to curiosity across the lifespan. Indeed, it is our conviction that curiosity continues to emerge in unique forms throughout our lives, and that part of the “politics of curiosity” is this continued and persistent narrative that sees adults and the elderly as less able or unable to be curious. This is a space that curious pedagogy would do well to explore further. How does curiosity change over the lifespan, and how might we learn to facilitate curiosity differentially in people of all ages?
Second, we would like curious pedagogy to focus on specific institutional settings—in education, medicine, law, and so on—assessing the ways that the rules, procedures, stipulations, power relations, and values of these institutions predetermine the types of curiosity that individuals can pursue. At the same time, we would like to see more empirically grounded studies that do not analyze curiosity as a generalizable concept within these institutional spaces but rather reveal its contingent manifestations based on one’s socioeconomic status, gender, race, sexuality, neurodiversity, and so on. In this vein, we would like to see scholars take a far more intersectional approach to curiosity, drawing from the many insights of Black feminist, decolonial, and queer scholars who have shown us that all knowledge—and, therefore its impetus: curiosity—is contingent on our sociocultural positions and the power relations therein.
Third, and perhaps most important, further praxis-based research should focus on the question of how to cultivate a culture of curiosity. While we have attempted to lay the groundwork for this inquiry, much more must be done to understand the specific and unique tools to induce curiosity in city planners and bus drivers, doctors and therapists, park rangers and lawyers, poets and philosophers. Indeed, if curiosity might also be a means by which to do these jobs better, it behooves us to focus more energy on determining the benefits of curiosity as they relate to the goals and motivations specific to each of these communities of practice.
At this final juncture, we have but one hope: that each of us and all of us together take what we have learned through engaging with this text to practice a more radical curiosity in our everyday lives.
Pam Grossman et al., “The Test Matters: The Relationship between Classroom Observation Scores and Teacher Value Added on Multiple Types of Assessment,” Educational Researcher 43, no. 6 (2014): 293–303.
Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Durham, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Random House, 2015), 26.
John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. John William Adamson (1693; New York: Dover, 2007), §118, 93.
See Johnson, this volume.
See Bassett, this volume.
Jim Garrison, Stefan Neubert, and Kersten Reich, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Education: An Introduction and Recontextualization for Our Times (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Carol Dweck’s growth-mindset theory is indebted to Dewey. For Dweck, students who see the brain as a muscle, subject to challenge and growth, see their own intelligence as malleable and open to change. See Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).
We do find that thinking of intelligence as multimodal is critical to recognizing curiosity across the learner spectrum. See Howard Gardner’s classic, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983), and the long scholarly discussion that follows in its wake.
John Dewey, The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899–1924, vol. 6, How We Think (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 205–7.
Dewey, 207; cf. John Dewey, The Middle Works of John Dewey, 1899–1924, vol. 9, Democracy and Education (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 55.
Cf. Nel Noddings, “Dewey’s Philosophy of Education: A Critique from the Perspective of Care Theory,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Dewey, ed. Molly Cochran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 265–87. Reflecting upon Dewey’s emphasis on “problem-solving,” Noddings also insists on asking, Whose problem? Solved with and for whom?
Renée Bondy, Jane Nicholas, and Tracy Penny Light, “Introduction: Feminist Pedagogy in Higher Education,” in Feminist Pedagogy in Higher Education: Critical Theory and Practice (Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015), 1–10.
Bondy, Nicholas, and Light, 1–10.
Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Knowledge,” in Feminist Theory Reader, ed. Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim (1988; New York: Routledge, 2013), 412–23.
Cynthia Enloe, The Curious Feminist: Searching for Women in a New Age of Empire (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004), 5.
Henri Giroux, “Critical Pedagogy in Dark Times,” in On Critical Pedagogy (New York: Continuum, 2011), 3–16.
Antonio Gramsci, “The Intellectual,” The Prison Notebooks, in An Anthology of Western Marxism, ed. Roger Gottlieb (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 113–19.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970).
bell hooks, “Engaged Pedagogy,” in Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994), 14.
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 37–38.
See Shankar, this volume.
Zeus Leonardo, “The Souls of White Folk: Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Globalization Discourse,” Race Ethnicity and Education 5, no. 1 (2010): 29–50.
Carter Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (Dreweryville, Va.: Khalifah’s Booksellers, 1933).
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
Jarvis R. Givens, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Demands of Black Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, forthcoming); and “‘There Would Be No Lynching If It Did Not Start in the Schoolroom’: Carter G. Woodson and the Occasion of Negro History Week, 1926–1950,” American Educational Research Journal (2019), https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831218818454.
Andrew Dilts, “Abolition Statement,” Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics (2015), https://abolitionjournal.org/abolition-statements-a-collection/.
Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 73.
Dylan Rodriguez, “The Disorientation of the Teaching Act: Abolition as Pedagogical Position,” Radical Teacher 88 (2010): 7–19.
Roderick Ferguson, The Reorder of Things (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).
Eli Meyerhoff, Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019); cf. Philip Schmidt’s Peer2Peer University (P2PU) project, https://www.p2pu.org/en/about/.
See Benedict, this volume.
Paulo Freire writes: “The process of learning, through which historically we have discovered that teaching is a task not only inherent to the learning process but . . . also characterized by it, can set off in the learner an ever-increasing creative curiosity” (Pedagogy of Freedom, 32).
See Swanson, this volume.
In many anthropological spaces, the idea of reflexivity has become a tool to deflect one’s own culpability: by listing one’s identities (white, male, etc.), one undercuts the more rigorous consideration of how our positions affect the kinds of knowledge we produce, disseminate, and teach. Sincere reflexivity is a response to this tendency. See John L. Jackson Jr., “On Ethnographic Sincerity,” Cultural Anthropology 51, no. S2 (2010): 279–89.
See Marvin, this volume.
We also turn to Anna Tsing’s work on Matsusake mushrooms, in which she asks us to consider just this relationship between the human and nonhuman, writing while thinking about the ruins of lifeworlds laid to waste: “Global landscapes today are strewn with this kind of ruin. Still, these places can be lively despite announcements of their death. . . . In a global state of precarity, we don’t have choices other than looking for life in this ruin. Our first step is to bring back curiosity.” Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015), 6.
See Pegi M. McEvoy et al., “Empathic Curiosity: Resolving Goal Conflicts That Generate Emotional Distress,” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing 20, no. 3 (2013): 273–78.
See, for example, Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); W. J. T. Mitchell, What Pictures Want: The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Also see Swanson, this volume.
See Keval, this volume.
Helga Nowotny, The Cunning of Uncertainty (Boston: Polity, 2017).
See Zurn, this volume.
Sandy Grande’s Red Pedagogy: Native American Social and Political Thought (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) charts a new terrain that integrates critical pedagogy with Native American epistemological traditions. She writes, “What distinguishes Red pedagogy is its basis in hope. Not the future-centered hope of the Western imagination, but rather, a hope that lives in contingency with the past—one that trusts the beliefs and understandings of our ancestors as well as the power of traditional knowledge. A Red pedagogy is, thus, as much about belief and acquiescence as it is about questioning and empowerment, about respecting the space of tradition as it intersects with the linear time frames of the (post)modern world. Most of all, it is a hope that believes in the strength and resiliency of indigenous peoples and communities, recognizing that their struggles are not about inclusion and enfranchisement to the ‘new world order’ but, rather, are part of the indigenous project of sovereignty and indigenization” (28–29).
James Baldwin, James Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: Library of Americas, 1998), 678–79.
Cf. Yarimar Bonilla, “Unsettling Sovereignty,” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 3 (2017): 330–39: “I believe it is worth exploring what a decolonial, rather than postcolonial, notion of sovereignty—and of anthropology itself—might mean. However, I prefer the term unsettling to decolonizing not only because it privileges the perspective of settler colonialism (which has often held a backseat within postcolonial studies) but also because I remain skeptical as to whether one could truly decolonize either sovereignty or anthropology, given that there is no precolonial status to which either could return. Unsettling avoids the telos of decolonization. What is unsettled is not necessarily removed, toppled, or returned to a previous order but is fundamentally brought into question” (335).
Grande, Red Pedagogy, 28.
See Schor, this volume.
Anton Tolman and Janine Kremling, eds., Why Students Resist Learning: A Practical Model for Understanding and Helping Students (Sterling, Va.: Stylus, 2016).
See Engel, this volume.
Arjun Shankar et al. “Anthropology, Film, Pedagogy, and Social Change,” American Anthropologist 119, no. 1 (2017): 147–53.
We draw from McLuhan’s famous phrasing, “The medium is the message.” See Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Message: An Inventory of Effects (New York: Penguin Books, 1967).
Arjun Shankar, “Toward a Critical Visual Pedagogy: A Response to the End of Poverty Narrative,” Visual Communication Journal 13, no. 3 (2014): 341–56.
In Shankar’s classrooms, for example, students are always provided opportunities to work in photography, film, and/or sound in addition to text, each of which allows students different avenues by which to explore their curiosity. And in Zurn’s classroom, students are often invited to develop a multimodal portfolio for their final project.
Arjun Shankar, “A (Gentle) Critique of the Photovoice: Case Study from Karnataka, India,” Visual Anthropology Review 32, no. 2 (2016): 157–66.
Perry Zurn, “Busybody, Hunter, Dancer: Three Historical Models of Curiosity,” in Toward New Philosophical Explorations of the Epistemic Desire to Know: Just Curious about Curiosity, ed. Marianna Papastephanou (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2019), 26–49.