The Return of Scientific Curiosity and Creativity/Ideas for an Outdoor Classroom

This post is about rediscovering a childhood fascination for how things work, and the thoughts it has provoked about creating learning environments that harness that fascination for the purposes of education.

When I was a kid I was fascinated by how things work: I used to spend hours drawing contraptions, making inventions or just asking difficult questions. It was based on real stuff – observations; and was limited by the materials I had to hand, my skills with tools, or the size of the piece of paper I was drawing on. You could call this a mixture of scientific curiosity, inventiveness and creativity. Whatever it was, by the time I had reached my late teens and was studying chemistry at university it was gone. By then I was fascinated by theories – molecular orbitals, quantum mechanics, and much later, maths – and I deliberately veered away from any subjects that involved practical application. Experiments were to be avoided at all costs, and anything related to material science, putting some of that theory into something resembling practice, I had a real distaste for. I found them difficult and somehow un-pure.

When I decided to study civil engineering, it was certainly a move back towards doing something more ‘real world’. But again, in that learning environment, I majored on theory, not on practice and I suspect it was because practice looked uninteresting, complicated or undervalued (the route to good marks, a powerful motivator, didn’t go via the workshop).

Now I find that scientific curiosity returning, in particular in relation to materials – how they are produced, how they are used, how they behave. I think this has in part been motivated by my work developing the online materials laboratory on the Workshed website. I have also found reading the ‘Lunar Men’ (Observer Review; Amazon; Lunar Society on Wikipedia) , in which Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt and their pioneering circle of eighteenth century friends were fascinated by ‘natural philosophy’: the study of rocks, soils, flowers; chemistry and physics; and harnessing those discoveries to delve lop manufacturing.

I ask myself where did that curiosity and creativity go? Ken Robinson gave an excellent talk at the RSA about how children are creative before they go to school, and spend the next thirteen years having it educated out of them. I find his observation aligns with my experience. But while he talks about creativity, what about scientific curiosity?

The other day, while comparing with M our experiences of doing scientific experiments at school, I suggested that what we were being taught was how to carry out specific experiments to illustrate certain points. Sure, we were taught how to create our own experiments, but for me this was in the context of an assessed practical lesson. The motivation for learning was extrinsic rather than intrinsic.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink defines three essential requirements for intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Taking the theme of using the built environment as a giant classroom (a theme which I feel is emerging in my recent blog posts and work) it is interesting to think how each of these pre-requisites can be met in order to encourage intrinsically motivated scientific curiosity.

Let’s start with autonomy. It seems natural to me that curiosity and experimentation is a natural extension of play, an activity that children get on with autonomously. And yet the formal way in which we teach science is disconnected from the informal play environment. If we could create a supercharged toy box, or play environment that allowed children to go beyond the limits of their regular toys, then perhaps perhaps self-motivated play would advance blur into experimentation with science and technology. I think the important thing here is to provide the right conditions for self-motivated discovery. While there already exist many science-based toys, I imagine is important is to help build the cognitive framework that will allow children to discover things for themselves using any toy.

Moving on to mastery, lots of play is about mastery – mastery at computer games for example. Mastery takes time, and requires conditions which challenge. Children might therefore benefit from a space in which they can keep coming back to play or to conduct their experiments, and in which they are challenged, perhaps by educators or mentors, to keeping trying harder.

Finally, purpose. On first reflection, it seems odd to associate a child’s play with some greater purpose. On the other hand, I believe children can have a clear idea of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. The key must surely be to link play with a greater good that children might recognise. So for example, play at an ecology centre or community farm might very easily be linked with animal welfare, or the quality of the local environment.

I believe these pre-requisites could be met by creating some sort of community-based learning environment – a cross between an after-school club and an ecology centre – and providing a loose but supportive system of supervision, which, combined, create the conditions to motivate scientific enquiry at an early age, laying the foundations for more formal scientific education and work later on.

These are loosely formed ideas, but I wanted to get them down as they form the basis of my thinking at the moment, and I see a stack of posts stacking up in future that I want to relate back to the points I have made in this post. I am only at the beginning of starting to research these ideas, and I am sure that when I delve deeper I will find many examples of these ideas already in practice. I will make it my business to find out more. All comments gratefully received!