Curiosity, Self-Respect and Learning

This is an edited transcript of a talk given at Koonan University, near Kobe, Japan, to the psychology class of Professor Hage Daishin on April 29, 1999. It was delivered in English and translated consecutively into Japanese.

I would like to begin by making a few distinctions. There are two general kinds of learning. One is the spontaneous, self-initiated learning that we all do all the time. It’s the learning that’s part of human nature, that we do from the day we’re born until the day we die. We do it from the minute we wake up in the morning until the minute we go to sleep, and we also do it in our sleep. The second kind of learning is coerced learning, learning that you are forced to do by somebody else, and that doesn’t originate with you. This kind of learning is limited in its usefulness and occurs very little in life. It requires endless repetition and drill; when you’re forced to learn, you have to be taught the same thing over and over again, because you’re not doing it of your own free will. That kind of learning is usually only at all practical for teaching skills that have to be automatic, skills that you have to be able to do without thinking. The classic example is the forced learning of army basic training. You do the same thing over and over — you clean your gun, you take your gun apart, you put your gun back together again, you drill, drill, drill, all day. That’s obviously not something you use everyday in life, but it’s very handy in a war, because when somebody’s shooting at you, you don’t want to start thinking about how to react.

Here, I’m interested in discussing the first kind of learning, the spontaneous kind, the kind that we do all our lives. When you think about human beings as natural learners, the first thing you have to ask yourself is, “Why? Why do we learn?” This is actually the kind of question that researchers ought to ask when they first begin studying anything. Unfortunately most people never ask that question, they just begin with the fact. Most books about learning start with

The reason evolution made it possible for us to learn, is in order to enable us to adapt to changing situations. Learning is an essential survival tool in an ever-changing environment. Learning is Nature’s gift to human beings to make them able to face the unknown.

Let’s take a closer look at what learning is. I’m going to break it down into four separate steps. The first step in learning is facing a new situation. In life, every minute we face new situations. No two moments are the same. In Western culture, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus first put this into words, 2500 years ago. He said, in one simple phrase, “All is change.” He introduced the image of life as a river, and said that the river you step into now is never the same as the river you stepped into a minute ago. This is something important to remember when you’re dealing with education. Every child, every adult, everyone, always faces new situations and therefore is always learning. It’s a terrible mistake that many parents and educators make, for example, when they see a child sitting around and looking at the sky, and they say, “He’s doing nothing! He should be learning." He is learning, only we don’t see what and how; but at every moment he is facing a new situation.

The second step in learning is focusing on something because it seems important to you. At any given moments there are millions of things changing around us. We obviously can’t deal with all of them at the same time. Look at this room right now. There’s a pen moving over there, a tape moving in that camera over there, somebody’s adjusting a microphone around his neck, somebody here is moving her hands — there are a million things going on. Each of us has to decide at every instant what we choose to focus on out of all these things. I’ll give you an example that is probably close to your hearts. When I was a student, I got very good grades, because I decided in class to focus all the time on what the teacher was saying. By doing this I missed most of life for twelve years. That wasn’t a very smart decision. Somebody else I know very well never paid any attention at all to what the teacher was saying. While the teacher was talking, she was dreaming and thinking about all the other things going on in her life. She made much wiser decisions about living in those twelve years. Now, the question you always have to ask is, why does someone focus on a particular aspect of the change that’s going on around them? It’s only when we understand, for each individual person, why they’re focusing on something, that we begin to understand that person; because the things that person is focusing on are the things that have meaning for that person at that time, and if you want to know something about that person, you’ve got to know what things have meaning for that person. Since every person in the world is unique and different from every other person, it’s obvious that no two people will have the same collection of meaningful foci. This is extremely important when dealing with people — never to make the mistake of grouping and classifying them in a way that narrows them down and makes them all the same. It’s also important not to make judgements. To me it may seem completely silly and useless for somebody to be focusing on some particular thing. This person over here may be focusing on railroad trains, and to me it may seem silly that she’s focusing on that right now, instead of on what I am saying! But that would be a mistake! Maybe she’s designing a new kind of train system! I should not be judging other people’s interests.

So the first step in learning is facing new situations. The second step is focusing on some part of the change. The third step is exploring what you’re focusing on until you’re satisfied. We can explore a little, we can explore a lot; everyone, all the time, makes a decision, how far to explore what they’re focusing on. We would go crazy if we extensively explored every single thing we focused on all our lives. This is the mistake that people make when they worry about what’s called the “information explosion.” People say, “It’s so terrible, there’s so much to learn, and so much to see, it’s just too much.” But that’s because people have this mistaken idea, that you have to learn everything there is, in depth. The truth is that we all should be free to explore whatever we want, to any depth we want. And in that sense the information explosion is wonderful, because it gives us a much greater choice of things we can focus on and explore. It frees us. This is another one of the terrible mistakes that are made in traditional education. People insist that every student focus to the same depth on every subject in the curriculum. That’s ridiculous, because the whole point of learning is to give us the flexibility of deciding just how far we’ll focus on what we want to learn.

I’ll give you an example from my own field, physics. Every child I’ve ever known has been interested in physics, because physics is just the study of how the world works. A little child who sees something fall often asks, “Why does it fall?” Or if he sees somebody turn on a light switch, he wonders, “Why does the light go on?” They see something new happening, they decide to focus on it and they explore with a question. Now when a little child asks me, “Why does the light go on?” he doesn’t want to explore the entire physics of electricity. Probably, he just wants me to tell him, “It’s because I turned the switch on.” And maybe later on, a few weeks or a few years later, he’ll ask me, “Why does turning the switch on make the light go on?” Even then, the answer he wants is not a whole course in electricity. Maybe it’s enough for him to know that there are wires in the switch, and when I turn the switch on, the wires touch each other, and that makes the light go on. Then there are a few children — very, very few children in the whole world — who don’t stop there, but want to understand further why the wires going together make the light go on, and that drives them to take a book on electricity and read the whole book. When they read the book about electricity, they find out that electricity is connected to many other things in the world, and they become physicists. That’s what I did, and I explored physics for many years. Now, here’s the point I want to make. Somewhere in my mid-twenties, I faced a new situation. We had a child, and I focused on that, because it was important to me. I started to focus on how to raise that child and began exploring that question. That led me to become interested in child-rearing, and in education. At the time, my parents said to me, “You should continue exploring physics. You put all that time and effort into physics. That’s what you should keep on doing.” But the whole point of learning, is that you explore as far as you need to, and when something more important comes along you explore that. That’s the beauty of human nature. I was finished, I was satisfied with my exploration of physics, but my exploration of child-rearing and education has become my life’s work, and I’m continuing that, even now. Somebody like Einstein on the other hand, explored physics his whole life.

The fourth step in learning is retaining the results of your exploration, so that you can use them over and over again in life. The beautiful thing about the spontaneous learning that we all do is that the amount that we retain is tremendous. Everyone of you should think about your own lives, and compare how much you remember and keep and use from among the things you did because you loved to do them, and how much you kept and used from the things you were forced to learn that you didn’t want to learn.

Now we’re in a position to understand the role of curiosity in learning. Curiosity drives learning pro-actively. Without curiosity all learning would be reactive. We would be waiting for some change to take place and reacting to that change. We would be perfectly happy just sitting in our chairs looking at the sky waiting for something to happen and then deciding to react to it. Curiosity does a lot more. It drives us to constantly probe our environment, to understand it better, and to anticipate changes. By doing this, curiosity makes it possible for us to explore many new options for dealing with change. Just as the ability to learn is a wonderful gift of Nature to help us survive, curiosity is another gift of Nature that makes the first gift, learning, work much much better. This marvelous ability of curiosity to increase our survival advantage was recognized in ancient times. The first sentence of Aristotle’s most important book, Metaphysics, is: “Human beings are curious by nature.” To him, that was the most important characteristic of human beings, and from that characteristic all the other advantages of humanity flowed.

Curiosity is such a strong drive that it precedes all of the usual biological drives that we learn about. There are experiments that show that even mice starve themselves to death when they are put in a new maze because they can’t find anything more important to do than explore that maze. It’s even more important than eating.

We can also understand now why self-esteem and self-respect are important for learning. Self-respect means that you have confidence in your personal power to function well and to solve problems. It is an essential adjunct of effective learning. Without confidence that you can solve problems there is no point in going out and trying to solve problems. Every little child is born with self-respect. It’s what makes it possible for them to go out and try to grow up and learn all the many things they have to learn in order to become adults. I don’t know how many of you have experience with little children. But if you observe them closely, you will see that whenever they succeed in doing something, they are very happy and proud of themselves. They feel strong. We have a three year old grandson. Every time he overcomes a particularly serious difficulty, he stands up with a big smile on his face and says “I did it! I did it!” What a wonderful expression of self-confidence and self-esteem! If you undermine this, if you destroy this in children, you’re making them lose the will to venture out to new challenges. They don’t see any point anymore to learning, or doing anything exciting with their lives. They close in on themselves, and they wait for others to lead, and they repeat what they’re told to do. They’re afraid of all change, and they’ll do only what they know.

There are many ways to destroy a person’s self-confidence. I don’t have time to talk about all of them, but you know many of them yourselves. One of the most common ways is to humiliate somebody when they make a mistake — tell them they’re stupid, or tell them they’re bad. Give them the message that they really can’t do what they set out to do; that they’re not up to it. We do this in traditional schools all the time. The vast majority of children who leave traditional schools at the end of their schooling have been told throughout their schooling that they’re just not up to snuff. When they go out into the world as adults they no longer have the confidence to learn new things or to adapt to big changes. When they lose their jobs they become depressed and helpless.

There are many tools for learning, such as observation, and experience. I want to discuss at greater length one tool which we use to learn, as an example to show how curiosity and self-respect come into play. The one I want to talk about is rarely discussed in the literature about learning, and not given nearly enough credit: conversation. It turns out that conversation is probably the most powerful learning tool that exists; and learning to use this tool is the hardest learning task that anyone undergoes in their entire lives. I’ll be able to convince you of that shortly. But in the meantime I just want you to note something especially relevant to education. The age at which we undertake the hardest learning task of our lives is between one and three. We do it without school, without classes, without tests. Just think about it. As toddlers, we learn the hardest thing we ever learn in our lives without teachers, classes or tests. It’s got to make you think whether teachers, classes and tests are all that important for any kind of learning.

Let’s consider conversation! What is a word? A word is an abstract symbol for a whole collection of things or activities. The essence of language is the process of creating a symbol — a tremendously difficult process of abstraction. The child hears the symbol — the word — over and over again. In the beginning, what the child hears is sounds, and he sees some kind of facial expression made by the person emitting the sound. At first, there is no abstraction, there is simply action — a funny face and a sound. The first thing the child has to do is recognize that there’s a difference between this set of things — this sound, this facial expression — and all other actions. The child has to realize that the word is an abstraction. Abstraction is an incredibly difficult and advanced concept. We have absolutely no idea how children handle it. We have no idea about the process by which the brain makes the leap to understanding that a word is an abstract symbol.

If you think that is difficult, consider how hard it is to figure out what the symbol relates to. If you think of any word, there are countless things that it refers to. The Greek philosopher Plato spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about this problem. For example, he tried to work with the simple word “chair.” All of us have no trouble recognizing a particular chair. But start thinking about all the different things that you’ve called “chair”, or that other people have called “chair”! Then try to identify what they have in common. You can fiddle with some definitions, like “it has four legs, and a back, and a seat”; but you don’t call a couch a chair. You might think, “A couch is too big to be a chair.” Is size a factor? There are big chairs, bigger than couches. All chairs don’t have to have a back. They don’t have to have four legs either. In fact, all kinds of things can be chairs. Then maybe you can say it’s something you sit on. But I often sit on a table, and I don’t call it a chair. Another interesting thing about the word “chair”, and about every other word, is that even after we’ve gone through all the meanings we can think about, along comes a poet and uses the word in a completely new way that we never thought of before. The genius of poets is that they always find new ways to use old words. I could go on and on about the word “chair”, and in fact Plato did go on and on about the word “chair”. In the end, he basically gave up. I mean, he came up with some sort an explanation, but I won’t bother you with it, because it wasn’t very good, and nobody uses it.

Here’s the point about language. As each of us begins to associate the symbol “chair” with things, we create our own meaning for the word. Every word means something different to every single individual in the world. We’ll come back to this later.

Let’s talk about the evolutionary advantage of conversation. A child is driven by curiosity to find out what you’re thinking as an adult. That’s part of the child’s active exploration of the world. He sees that there are other people around, and he wonders how they figure out the world. What the child comes to realize is that by using words, by using these symbols, he can open a window into other people’s minds. This is the fundamental reason children struggle so hard to speak. It’s because they recognize that speech makes it possible for them to dramatically increase their ability to learn. Speech means that a child is not limited to what he’s been able to learn on his own, but that he can connect to what every other human being in the world has learned. Words give every individual the ability to tap into the wisdom of the whole human race whenever they want. Can any of you think of a better tool for learning? Probably the best way one could ever devise for children to grow up is just to let them be free to talk.

Now I come to what I call the miracle of communication. As we saw, each one of us has our own meaning to every word. How do I know that when I say “chair” and when you say “chair”, we’re talking about the same thing at all? Let me sharpen that question a little. What is the Japanese word for chair? “Isu.” So I say “chair”, and you say “isu.” When we first meet we have no idea that we’re talking about the same thing, because one is a word in Japanese, and one is a word in English, and we all understand these are two different languages. But the fact is that my English language and your English language aren’t the same language either! No two people’s languages are exactly the same. So how do we communicate? That’s what I call the miracle of communication. We learn to constantly probe what the other person means by a word, by interacting with them over and over again. Again, think of the child learning from the parent. Slowly, with hard work, the area of overlap between the meanings gets defined by the people involved. It’s never a complete overlap because ultimately we each have our own languages. In fact, social circles can be defined by the degree of linguistic overlap. We all have the greatest overlap of meanings with members of our family; every family has its own private language — you know, you say a word, and everyone in your family laughs, and all your friends are looking and saying, “Why are they laughing?” You have slightly less overlap with your close friends, less overlap with members of your club or church, and less and less as you reach out farther into the community. Maybe you can have a little sympathy with the job of politicians and national leaders, who have to try to speak in a language that everybody can somehow understand, and therefore have to use words in a very careful and particular way — and suffer from being frequently misunderstood.

This is where self-esteem and self-confidence enter the picture. As we grow up, we’re all swimming in an ocean of private languages used by other people. We’re overwhelmed trying to make sense out of all of the meanings of all of the things we’re being told by the people we meet every day. Self-confidence is what gives us the power to retain our own meanings, our own sense of who we are, as we struggle with the plethora of meanings that surround us. It takes personal strength to keep remembering “this is what I mean by this,” “this is what I mean by this idea or that idea,” even as everybody else is bombarding you with their meanings.

I wanted you to see how the development of language was a good example of the role of curiosity and self-confidence in learning. Curiosity drives the child to see through this terribly difficult task of opening a window into other people’s minds. Self-confidence helps us retain our own feeling of individual meaning as we’re coping with everyone else’s meanings.


The language issue has interesting implications for the role of the teacher. For most of us, a great deal of the time we spend in class with teachers in front of us is boring and uninteresting. Partly this is because we’re not curious or interested in learning what the teacher wants to teach. Partly, however, this is also because of the different languages that we talk, and our inability to understand each other. I want to give you two specific examples.

The first time I encountered this problem happened many years ago, when I was teaching physics. I was standing in front of a class, and I developed a physics problem on the blackboard. It was a typical, rather simple, mathematical derivation. I wrote one formula, then another formula that followed from the first, and then another. At the end of all these formulas that I developed very carefully, and very slowly, the last formula came out to read, “E=1/2MV2”. Suddenly, somebody raised his hand. “Why is it half of MV2?” He couldn’t stand the half! At the time, I just couldn’t believe it. I thought he was terribly stupid. I spent all this time writing all these formulas, and the last formula turned out to have “½” in it, and that was that. I thought, “What do you mean by asking me, ‘Why a half?’?” But it turned out that we were simply talking different languages — mine laced with mathematical meaning, his devoid of that meaning. And this discrepancy has always plagued the teaching of science, and even the development of scientific theories.

I finally understood all this about ten years ago. I was working with a student at our school, trying to teach him simple arithmetic. When we got to negative numbers, he couldn’t understand them at all. I tried so many different ways to explain them. Nothing helped. Then one day I realized that we were having a serious language problem. The problem was in the word “arithmetic”. For him, the word meant “the truth about numbers.” In English we say, “It’s as true as ‘one plus one equals two’.” Once I understood what the word “arithmetic” meant to him, as a word, I turned to him and I said, “Wait a minute, arithmetic is a game. People made up the rules.” He loved computer games. So he said, “Ah, it’s a game! Now I understand!” And there was never again any problem with negative numbers. That’s why when a teacher teaches a student who wants to learn something from him, the most important thing for the teacher to do is to always think, “What do my words mean in my student’s language? I can only succeed in getting my knowledge and my wisdom to him if my words convey relevant meaning in his language and in his words.”

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