I fed ”Life long learning” search request to our friend and enemy, Google, and received about 3 100 000 hits. No doubt it’s a very popular concept and having such a massive popularity, one would assume it has a significant explanatory power in the study of human, and especially adult, learning and education. But then I tried ”Life long curiosity” and got only 26 000 hits. I became curious, why so few? You would think that curiosity is the golden force we envy from our children and which makes people move towards and beyond the frontiers of knowledge and human experiences.
When I first learned about the concept of Life Long Learning (LLL), sometime in 1990’s at a meeting with our Ministry of Education and Culture, I felt uneasy, but remained silent; the concept felt somehow artificial and fake, but I did not know why. Of course, we all learn from birth to death, some learn good things, and some learn bad stuff. Many seem to regress, undergoing a form of pathological learning, or why not call it negative learning. As sad as it sounds, most of us must learn to die.
There are numerous interesting-sounding concepts around LLL, like social software for LLL, learning anytime and anywhere, learning infrastructure, empowerment, mobility, and many others, but when you take off the emperor’s clothes from “life long learning”, you’ll be surprised to notice how, in real life, it simply means that even after school, university or any other educational institute, or when you become 30 or so, you must learn something new and useful. All the time.
I had an inspiring talk with a somewhat younger friend of mine about our ongoing, personal projects. We did not start talking about studying or learning, although formally and from the outset, it was about different forms of learning we both had going on. It did not take long, before it was clear to us that it’s not about life long learning at all, it’s about Life Long Curiosity. We had curiosity projects going on.
Well, of course life long learning can be the outcome of a future educational system, and a valuable, if not a necessary one for us in the fast-paced, future world, but something else must happen first, before we are ready and willing to dwell into learning, independent of the external pressures like the need for professional progress, new digital tools, the teachers, the lure of gamification or the pile of money promised.
But what is curiosity and how does it come about? Surprising enough, it is not well known. In his much-cited paper (1994) George Lowenstein defined curiosity:
“The new account interprets curiosity as a form of cognitively induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding.”
According to Lowenstein, it’s deprivation, like hunger or thirst, perhaps both! Typical to the spirit of the 1990’s, the definition of curiosity, however, emphasizes its cognitive nature with a somewhat diluted sprit. We all know the tickling feeling when we are passionate to find out something compelling, good, and why not even bad, so much that we forget everything else, even sleep; it’s much more than a cognitive gap in knowledge. Scientists who have studied such psychological phenomena have noted how curiosity drives, not only the work of the “doers”, but also the reactions of people to the arts, sports, sciences, education, advertisements… whatever.
When you follow the politicians, anywhere, and not only in Finland, they see gaps everywhere in our education system, its efficiency, its usefulness, use of money, and strategic value. But the way they see the gap has nothing to do with curiosity – it’s more a question of immediate gain of power, fame, and often it is simply greed. Curiosity and greed live in separate universes but sometimes, unfortunately, they overlap.
Modern educational scientists have been fascinated to adopt the concept of life long learning, and why not, it does offer a wonderful chance to extend the scientific and (sometimes) practical scope of their research and teaching to learning at any age. Politicians are happy to support that in the hope of extending the working years and to respond to what they call strategic needs of a nation. Researchers get more funding.
But of course, Lowenstein had something else on his mind when defining curiosity like that. He meant that an individual, a person, a human being perceives the gap, and becomes curious about it and does something about it, like drinking from the well of knowledge. But a most fundamental question and challenge arises: what makes us, our grandparents, or our children perceive this gap of knowledge?
What I’d like to suggest here is that curiosity, as a psychological phenomenon, is the most important source of mental, even spiritual energy in education and human growth. Curiosity makes us tick. Curiosity can take the adventurous mind to the limits of the unexplainable, and to the most fascinating inventions of the mankind. Without curiosity, like without motivation, everything dies. It is no accident that “Curiosity” is the name of the famous Mars Rover (https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/index.html) We should know everything about human curiosity.
Through some of the wonderful educational entrepreneurs from Finland and other countries, we know that one of the underlying ideas in their ways of using games, methods, materials, and technological and educational tools to promote learning, is to inspire and motivate students to do better than ever before. Often, they are working with the power of curiosity although they do not call it that, and instead use terms like inspire, fun, engage, innovate, and enthusiasm.
“Life long learning” is a benevolent descriptive concept emphasizing the need to learn from birth to death, and to serve society and ourselves, but it is not enough. Can you be curious if you don’t know anything? What kind of curiosity is based on very a thin knowledge background, or to express it more bluntly: Can an ignorant person be curious, too? What does an excellent education level mean to the potential of curiosity? What is needed to make people motivated to learn?
In future, we may well talk about curiosity technologies. We can already imagine and actually see it in the activities of firms and initiatives like HundrEd (https://hundred.org/en) , Lightneer (http://www.lightneer.com), to mention just two promising Finnish initiatives.
One could imagine that Artificial Intelligence systems will learn to be curious about our world and us, but there is a mountain of problems before it can reach the level of human capability. One of the amazing aspect of human curiosity is the ability to change the domain of interest that can take place in seconds. In arts, and increasingly more often in sciences, it is a secret behind revolutionary ideas.
To finish with a personal experience on the power of curiosity, some 25 years ago I was observing how a researcher was using a text coding software (Atlas.ti) to analyze and code texts from several interviews in her organizational research project. I knew nothing about the analysis method she was using, but was curious to know. I have a strong background in visual sciences and can even claim that at the time I knew every neural mechanism there was to know about the human visual system, especially from bottom up, from the retinal networks to thalamus, to the visual and other cortices. I had nothing to do with those types of analytical tools.
When she explained what she was doing – generating a kind of a pyramid of codes of the meanings in the texts – it struck me that why not study the visual system with a similar, rigorous, top-down approach, to study and model human visual experiences? I had spent all my research life studying mostly bottom-up visual mechanisms. We had just started a large project on visual quality and that curiosity turned my “pyramid of knowledge upside down”. The results during these decades have been just fascinating and something to be proud of. Without the misplaced curiosity – with respect to the ‘correct’ visual sciences at that time – I don’t think I had made the dramatic change.
There is a long way for the AI systems to achieve this kind of dynamic curiosity behavior and of course, it is not easy for us human either but when it happens, new doors can be opened by our curiosity, to new spaces for opportunity perception.