I keep six honest serving men,
(They taught me all I knew):
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them East and West;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.
I let them rest from nine ‘til five
For I am busy then.
As well as breakfast, lunch and tea
For they are hungry men.
But different folk have different views;
I know a person small –
She keeps ten million serving men,
Who get no rest at all!
She sends ‘em abroad on her own affairs,
From the second she opens her eyes.
One million Hows, two million Wheres
And seven million Whys.
This poem appears at the end of Rudyard Kipling’s famous story of the Elephant’s Child, an animal with ‘satiable curtiosity’ (which meant he asked every so many questions). Kipling reflects on the way in which questions are natural teachers: as we ask, we learn and grow. He then compares the intellectual life of adults, who often block out their questions, and that of the child who flows with questions from the moment they wake up in the morning.
Kipling makes a point that educators know: that questions drive our learning. In the same way that nature abhors a vacuum, conscious ignorance quickly begets understanding. Yet all too often the wonderful curiosity we see in children gets stifled as they grow up. They become content with being told information, rather than seeking it for themselves. While ‘independent learning’ is a goal of education, we often create dependency instead by supressing rather than cultivating children’s wonderful desire to learn.
The Christian faith invites sincere questions. Through the Old Testament prophets, God encouraged humble seeking after him that would be satisfied (Jeremiah 29: 13). Jesus’ employed storytelling and questioning as two of his main teaching techniques. At times he actively provoked questions to help people think deeply about his identity (Mark 12: 35 – 37). And as people drew close to him their questions did not diminish, but their wonder grew. It seems Jesus’ only objection to questions was when they were a questioning of his authority (Mark 11: 33) or a refusal to believe what was clearly evident (John 20: 27).
A few years ago I did a course through Harvard Graduate School of Education called, ‘Visible Thinking’. One of its aims was to encourage different types of thinking in students and they had numerous ways of promoting curiosity through different routines that encouraged students to ask questions. There is much merit in this, but I am sceptical about turning curiosity into a habit through techniques. Surely there is a way of instilling curiosity which taps into the temperament of the child’s natural desire to learn?
Charlotte Mason, who many Christian educationalists have been inspired by, talks about the natural curiosity of the child and how to cultivate it. One of her mantras is that ‘education is a discipline, an atmosphere, a life’. She has a deep trust in the natural process of learning for children which does not need to be contrived but is sustained by a provision of a generous curriculum. She argues that “children require much knowledge, for the mind needs sufficient food as much as does the body; that knowledge should be various, for sameness in mental diet does not create appetite and that knowledge should be communicated in well-chosen language, because his attention responds naturally to what is conveyed in literary form”. A pillar of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is that children should be exposed to rich literature which opens up a world of exploration for them. A second pillar is that they should be exposed to the natural world around them and all the wonders it contains.
One of the most misused quotes in education, attributed to W.B.Yeats, is: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. This is a false distinction. Lighting the fire of learning happens when we open up children to the best learning that has gone before them and the richness of the world around them. This is part of what I mean when I talk about wanting curriculum to creatively exceed the demands and constraints of any national standard. As we have a high expectation of the type of ideas and learning which inspires children, we will ensure they deploy their ten million serving men effectively. And as they do so, conscious that they are exploring the world of their Heavenly Father, children cannot respond with pride but with awe and wonder at all that there is to discover.