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I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

How to Cultivate Curiosity and Stop Stupidity (Part 1)

 Cultivating Curiosity and Stopping Stupidity
Oh My Gosh! Look at this puppy. That’s so cute.
— A male student in my 2nd-hour chemistry

Curiosity is a choice. So is ignorance. Thus, the only person who can make you stupid is yourself. Not your parents. Not your school. Not your friends. You.

Consider how easy it is to pick up a digital device and spend an hour watching car crash or cat videos. It's one thing to watch one cat video while taking a break from doing something meaningful. It's quite another to get sucked in. Crazy and cute appeal to the human brain, but don't always help it learn. Enjoying the neurochemicals our brain releases it's easy to spend mindless hours on self-entertainment forgoing self-education in the process. It takes mindfulness and self-control to do the opposite.

The Rise of the Digikid

It doesn't take much for an adult to get sucked into virtual nonsense but many of today's kids practically live on YouTube or Snapchat or in the virtual world of video games and other digital media. Fully developed prefrontal cortex and all, adults can reflect on the mind-numbing activities they partake in more often. The kids? Not so much. Johnny just spent 6 hours playing Fortnite after school and lost track of time. He's so hopped up on adrenaline that he's considering skipping sleep to study for that chem test tomorrow. His teenage PFC is like: Fuck it! I'll sleep when I'm six feet under. 

Studies on the kids' use of digital devices and media are all over the place but the trends are clear. Every year, more kids are using digital devices and on average, they spend more of their time in the digital realm of the Internet. They are the digikids.

The Incurious Ones

All teachers and parents know the internet can be a blessing and a curse. Ian Leslie who wrote Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It claims internet usage can further widen the divide between those who want to learn, the curious ones, and those who are unmotivated to do so, the incurious ones. 

This is because the incurious students choose to spend most of their online time seeking entertainment. As a result, they consume content that adds little value to their personal growth. Much of their plugged-in time is spent aimlessly pursuing and learning about vain things. They don't acquire knowledge and skills that better their lives because their curiosity muscles have atrophied. 

The Curious Ones

These students keep asking questions way past their preschool years. Unreal, I know. They never stopped asking questions. Hopefully, they never will. These individuals are like that annoying 3-year-old in the back seat of your family sedan - the more questions you answer - the more they ask. The more they discover, the farther and deeper they want to explore. Embrace them. Even if their chutzpa makes you a little uncomfortable trust in this: They're not the annoying ones. They're just curious.

They use the world wide web to learn and dig deeper. They google something, then watch a video on it, then come running to you to discuss the things that intrigued them and to ask about concepts that elude them. They are the curious ones and they will save the world. So for world's sake: Let them! Embrace their curiosity or you might contribute to soul death. 

Why Giving Up Curiosity Is Soul Suicide

Stagnation, the feeling of being stuck in a profession you're blah about, and the eventual resignation all result from abandoning our curiosity which diminishes our motivation and creativity. And though things we can't control happen to us all the time, it is ultimately us who give up our curiosity. This is soul suicide. We end up living a life filled with regrets about what we didn't do and excuses for why we didn't do it. Accepting that this is the way it's supposed to be is frequently an unconscious decision resulting from conditioning, becoming aware of it might be all that's needed to start reversing this conditioning. Of course, one has to act on this newfound realization because change comes from doing not design.

Awareness and Reawakening Curiosity

Luckily, curiosity doesn't die. Becoming incurious at different points in my life I eventually broke the pattern each time. Instead of disappearing completely, curiosity lies dormant, buried underneath a thick layer of apathy. But it can always be uncovered and reawakened; sometimes stimulated by a new interest; at other times induced by the shocks of life. 

To be able to help reawaken the innate curiosity every human is born with it's helpful to look at reasons and circumstances that often lead to loss of motivation and apathy. This creates awareness that allows you to prevent incuriosity when children are young and work to counteract its effects in older kids or adults.

While poverty is often blamed for educational and professional success divide, it's important to note that many kids grow up impoverished in more ways than one. They might grow up in an environment that doesn't validate and support their curiosity. Their questions are brushed aside by well-meaning but busy parents. Their explorations and pursuits are first suppressed by parents and later annihilated by society's norms. 

In today's technology-infused world kids exposure to this very world is different. We can substitute real experiences with virtual ones. But how does this affect curiosity? The internet can be used to learn but it's just so damn easy to pick up a device and continue clicking through the digital world of cute puppies, furry cats, and sneezing pandas that freak themselves out. How many kids instead of going camping and seeing that Peppa the Pig theater play or participating in dance or STEM classes grow up in front of the modern age pacifiers; the brain numbness-inducing TVs and iPads?

TVs have been around for more than half a century and every teacher has encountered students hooked on the tube. The effect was apparent. They didn't do the homework, complete the projects, study the concepts, learn the material, or pass the class. This is amplified today. As early as toddlerhood more and more kids are conditioned to live a life of media consumption. While this keeps them from bouncing off the walls it turns them into vegetables; organisms that don't take control of their life but rather let life happen to them. And no offense but as useful as plants are they're about as smart as the dirt they grow in.

I cannot know the exact childhood story of each teenager I encounter in my classroom but I see the effects of incuriosity every day and they are startling. Unless students are taught and shown how to use their smartphones for learning their first inclination is to use them for entertainment. Consumption of video, audio, and imagery via apps and social media is conditioned. With technology, fun became easy, no assembly required. But the kids of the past had much less access to instant gratification devices so dopamine had to be earned with curiosity and made with creativity.

Luckily, this is still possible today. We can choose to turn the devices off and go play with our kids in the real. The more exposure to things other than devices they have the higher the chance they will remain curious about everything the world is made of and life offers.

Don't Just Tell Them. Do It with Them.

It is up to us, the adults in their lives to do it. But we can't be punitive. We can't just take the devices away from kids and force them to read. We can't be passive either. We can't just tell the kids to do something else. Rather, we have to get involved in their lives more and find the time to experience life with them.

We need to get interested in the whys so we can find new and more meaningful hows. If we know the specific reasons for why our kids like a certain app or game or whatever, we can find new more creative ways of channeling that energy. Then, we can perhaps provide more productive alternatives to spending mindless hours doing one particular thing. 

We can figure out ways to involve the gamer kids in creating content related to the games they play. How about starting a YouTube channel or a podcast giving game tips or reviewing games? How about a website that aggregates all the cool trends and pop culture things teens are into or focuses on one topic such as music, gaming, clothing, shoes, gear, or teen life hacks? We can watch TED talks they might enjoy with them and discuss them afterward or make our own video that addresses this or similar topic and put it on YouTube. We can agree to learn how to write apps with them and write an app with them. We can take them downtown and ask them to use their phone to navigate. We can take them camping and teach them how to gather wood and start a fire without lighter fluid. We can take a walk to the local park or hang out in the grassy area by the school building and make a map or draw different kinds of plants and bugs.

We can do many things with them. We can't just tell them to go do something


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