Sunday, April 22, 2007

Curiosity (Motivation Revisited)


Last week I went to the library to return a book. I noticed Serpico in the stacks. This was the Peter Maas biography of Frank Serpico, a New York City cop who exposed corruption in the police department in the early 1970s. I'd seen the film years ago with my dad, and thought I'd sit down for a moment to skim the book.

Two and a half hours later I was done, late for everything else I was supposed to do that day, and amazed once again at the power of a good book to utterly disrupt my life.

For many book lovers, library stacks create halls of wonder. We seize a book - or it seizes us - because something on the cover or spine or fly-leaf spoke to us, and now we want to know more. A "good book" is a book that snags and holds our attention. It's a "page turner" or "pot boiler" that robs us of sleep because we so want to know what happens next. It's a book that connects somehow with our wonderings - about ourselves, about the world. It's a "what if" book that promises, before its done, to tell us the answer.

I wrote earlier about motivation and safety as requirements for learning. I'm having second thoughts about using that term. My trusty Oxford Canadian Dictionary (2001) offers "motivation" as a noun without definition - it's tucked in under "motivate" (verb). Yeah, well, okay. But what is it? Is "motivation" anything more than a four syllable word meaning "motive" or "rationale" or, better, "a reason to"?

What do you say of people who appear to work hard at learning, but who just don't seem to grasp or retain things? Are they unmotivated? Ineffective? Or, do they lack curiosity, that desire to know more?

Maybe, people grasp and retain only information that they are curious about. Maybe, a precondition of learning geography or photography or how to add fractions is a curiosity about these things.

Well, you ask, do people learn to ride a bike because they are curious about bike riding? Good question. Let me respond by suggesting people learn to ride bikes because they have a real interest (in both senses) in learning to ride. Riding a bike really is something they want to do. In the case of acquiring information - about, say, Canadian history or the mechanics of volcanoes - effective learners will really want to know about these things.

That's what I mean by curiosity: someone really wanting to know about something, or about how to do something, because, well, they're interested in it for its own sake.

I think I'm expressing this badly. But I'm sure - surer each day - that the person who says "I'm just not interested in politics" or "I hate math - its just so confusing" is not going to "get" algebra or political science. They're not interested, not curious.

Too, whether children or adults choose to read - to read this or that book, or to read at all - has to do with curiosity. Would anyone read a book they weren't curious about? Seems unlikely. And if they struggle with reading through lack of practice or a limited sight vocabulary, there is even less likelihood they would want to bother with something they had no interest in.

The sub-text of much talk about boys and reading is that we need to get them interested in reading for its own sake by introducing them to sports figures who read or bribing them with thematic ribbons and stickers. But, surely, the starting point is "what do you want to know about?" What are you - or I, or anyone - so curious about that we'd take on the task of reading, even giving up a sunny afternoon for the library or reading deep into the night.


Photo by Thomas Hawks, William and the Books
http://static.zooomr.com/images/897556_d5d16eaede_b.jpg

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