A Culture of Curiosity
Mr Geoff Lancaster | Principal | Grammar News | 21st August 2020
It is fitting in National Science Week to write about curiosity, the fifth in my series of School Culture. At assemblies this week, I spoke with the students about two key scientific discoveries that changed the world, yet began with curiosity. One was the simple act of washing hands before operations, the other was the discovery of Penicillin.
The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he's one who asks the right questions.” - Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit, 1964.
The discovery of Penicillin in 1928 similarly came about by a scientist asking “why?” when he observed something unusual. Alexander Fleming was experimenting with the influenza virus in a Laboratory in London. He was trying to find a possible cure to the virus, in much the same way that many researchers are currently trying to find a cure and vaccine for COVID-19. Fleming was actually a little bit sloppy in his science and he left a contaminated culture on a surface in his office while he went away on holidays for two weeks. When he returned, he noticed mould but he also noticed that the mould had prevented the growth of a certain type of bacteria in the culture. His curiosity to understand “why?” led to the discovery of Penicillin and consequently many other antibiotics that have changed the course of history through treatment of bacterial diseases.
Religious hand washing rituals (see Exodus 30:17-21) have been around for thousands of years in Islamic, Jewish and other cultures, but the notion of germs and disease spreading by hand has only been scientifically understood for about 130 years. In 1848 the Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, observed that many more mothers giving birth under the supervision of midwives were surviving birth than those giving birth in a hospital ward where doctors were working on a variety of different sicknesses. Semmelweis wondered why this was the case and experimented with washing hands and utensils between operations. Death rates of mothers dropped from 18% to 1% which prompted others to begin thinking in a new way about how diseases were spread, although Germ Theory wasn’t widely understood until Louis Pasteur’s research in the 1860s.
So how do we get our students to be curious and ask the right questions? I believe everyone wants to learn. Our job as teachers is to provide a learning environment that stimulates the students’ curiosity in the subjects we teach - to spark an idea that makes them wonder. This involves engaging students in the learning process and giving them the opportunity to solve problems they are interested in. It also involves providing meaning and context to the work our students are learning so they can make connections across disciplines and understand the work rather than just “know” the answer. We are so fortunate at St Luke’s that our students are such engaged and motivated learners, but we also want them to be divergent thinkers who can pull together disparate ideas and make sense of them to solve complex problems.
One of the things that disheartens me about the society we live in is that so many people are task focussed and goal-oriented that this sense of wonder and curiosity takes a back seat. We need to take time to “stop and smell the roses”. Some call it a post-truth society - people believe what they hear on social media and take easy options rather than think critically about what they hear. We want our students to be deep thinkers who can navigate through the noise to find truth.
We also want our students to be curious about the big questions in life. There are many passages in the Bible put the idea out there that much of God’s character and majesty can be understood by looking at the world around us and asking ”why?”. This Christian worldview encourages us to not just drift through life without thinking deeply about our place in the world but to explore faith that can provide hope and purpose. I was asked during the interview process what I would like to be a key standout of my time at St Luke’s and the first thing that came to mind was that we helped students to be curious about the world around them. Curious graduates who can ask the right questions will be ready to make a difference in any field of endeavour.