Common Core Kills Curiosity

Those concerned with the pernicious effects of Common Core will find much to celebrate in journalist Ian Leslie's captivating new book, Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It. In it, Leslie explores the troubling prospects of a world where curiosity has taken a back seat to standardization and vision-less acceptance. Beyond the need for food, shelter and human relations, Leslie argues that curiosity always propels civilization.

He credits curiosity with fueling great strides in science, technology, and the humanities while also encouraging human empathy. While supportive of technological innovations that enhanced humanity's ability to pursue knowledge, he is critical of the over-reliance on "smart" devices, which he argues are "severing the link between effort and mental exploration," and Internet sites, like Google, for promoting, "the powerful illusion that all questions have definite answers."

Leslie also reports on how curiosity's demise negatively affects children. "When it comes to education," he observes, "curiosity is in the odd position of being undervalued and overpraised at the same time." Acknowledging the myriad ways in which school districts can undermine curiosity and academic exploration by over-stressing test scores and technical training, Leslie emphasizes the importance of structured explorations that can help energize and expand a child's imagination.

Surveying the findings of a wide variety of studies by specialists in the field, Leslie challenges the oft-repeated manta of corporate education reformers that the prescription for academic success is equivalent to the old puritan work ethic -- an ambiguous blend of hard work and ability. Leslie insists, however, that their formula misses a key ingredient, in curiosity, which, once awakened can enhance, or inspire the development of ability and drive hard work. By muting it, he contends we will continue to produce "uninspired students and mediocre professionals" compelled by artificial standards instead of curiosity-fueled imagination.

"Childhood curiosity," he maintains, "is a collaboration between child and adult. The surest way to kill it is to leave it alone." Yet, this is precisely what the Common Core, with its fixed canon, one-size-fits-all approach to knowledge-building, and emphasis on high stakes testing, promotes. By limiting a student's range of inquiry to a set of predetermined answers, Common Core -- like a Google search -- privileges the pursuit of the most accepted (highest ranked) answers over the process of interrogating findings by asking additional questions. In this way, the answer is not an end in itself but a gateway to the pursuit of more knowledge -- vital nourishment to the curious mind.

Leslie's conclusions challenge the thinking of education reformers like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan who insist that the Common Core and high stakes testing are the antidote to "failing schools" and American students lagging behind their foreign counterparts on the same fixed and arbitrary measures of achievement -- standardized tests.

Furthermore, they also challenge the notion that tests alone can tell us anything substantive about the individual capacity of the unengaged mind -- offering a firm, if unintended, rebuke to Secretary Duncan's 2009 claim that testing would allow us, "to look every second grader in the eye and say, 'You're on track, you're going to be able to go to a good college, or you're not.'"

More recently, the Secretary extended his gospel of testing to special education students. During a conference call in June, he was quoted as saying, "We know that when students with disabilities are held to high expectations and have access to a robust curriculum, they excel." Special Education researchers, teachers, and parents of special needs students quickly responded, challenging the unspoken implications of the Secretary's assertion that schools jettison highly effective and curiosity-based IEPs (Individual Educational Plans) that increase opportunities for students with special needs in favor of uniform standards and more testing.

Leslie's analysis goes even further, challenging the merits of what even those successful on standardized tests really know and the role of schools as little more than testing centers. He contends that, "without schools to build their database of knowledge, children can grow up fatally unaware of what they don't know, uninterested in their own ignorance, and at a lifelong disadvantage to more knowledgeable -- and so more curious -- peers."

Those peers, of course, will be comprised mostly of students from the highest socioeconomic backgrounds with access to the type of instruction that will make them thought leaders over largely poor, minority and urban school students shackled by common core and tagged, ranked, and tracked from an early age by their performance on high stakes tests. They will make up a far from new but relabeled underclass of assumed intellectual inferiors -- incurious, irredeemable, and not worth the investment in meaningful academic interventions.

Although not Leslie's conclusion, this is the real crime of the education reformers hell bent on quantifying success in the very limited confines of standardized test scores while tearing down schools, slashing budgets, and working feverishly to eviscerate the teaching profession. They are not only killing curiosity but slaughtering the dreams and prospects of millions of students nationwide -- whose very lives may soon be reduced to a test bubble.