If you know of some certain fresh-faced, once-naïve, graduates... the sentiments seem to pervade a common regret among once-curious minds settling into a newfound career.

“School isn’t about learning, it’s about passing tests.”

I understand that holding such old and restated views is quite controversial, especially when we consider the fact that those who don’t have access to quality education are significantly at a disadvantage of educational bias. This is not an attack on education. Today’s article will explore some aspects of modern education in relation to human innovation and is targeted toward readers who find themselves entering the workforce after graduation.

Curiosity: a precursor to innovation

Curiosity. It's our natural inclination to try and recognise or understand something. It's how humans try and manipulate cause into potential effect. Curiosity has aided us in connecting the dots between the friction of wood to fire and the complexities of conceptual frameworks across countless ideas. Our imagination is a hungry thing and it needs continuous "food-for-thought". The earliest thinkers could only line up pieces of data without an initial hypothesis. As the library of established phenomena grew, their curiosity required them to use what was already known as a form of guidance. Consequently, this leaves new ideas to be prone to make-do assumptions and affirmed through half-baked experiments solely designed to prove a devised hypothesis. Through years of reviews and critiques, education digests these new pieces of research and adds them to the curriculum. To them, building on knowledge for their children and their children's children is a gift. Which it is! But perhaps it might just be the ribbon...

The intellectual life and the academic life

When a toddler plays with a feather by hitting and suspending it in the air it quickly learns that the lego-block would not stay in the air the same way a feather does. The toddler laughs in excitement when responding to the novelty of their parent’s logic-defying disappearing coin trick. As the child ages, external influence from the “experienced” adult so set in their ways explains the world around them “as it is”. The child, who asks valid but class-disrupting questions are shut down on the basis of irrelevance and stifle their own desire to reach the answer they seek. Because why would they want to? If those around them seem to think it's not worth knowing, is it worth their time and effort? But that itch remains unscratched and gets buried deep under the responsibility of achieving academic success.

But shouldn’t the design behind assessment criteria, by nature, guide the student towards asking the right questions? Not all the time. Yes, it builds on knowledge and understanding, but it doesn’t always push the student to push intellectual boundaries and strive to connect all the dots in exciting and creative ways. Yes, it prepares them for the workplace, but it doesn’t always paint the bigger picture of how far the industry has advanced. The imagination can fall easily into interpreting new concepts as part of a single narrative and this dilemma students find themselves upon realisation manifests as a lack of enthusiasm that is glaringly obvious as they progress into their final academic years.

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all” - Aristotle

When some teachers are now beginning 101 by resorting to 5-minute YouTube video summaries of entire concepts, instead of prompting students with thought-provoking questions, it leaves an impression that entire schools of knowledge can be condensed into factoids and simplified statements. The convenience of this style of teaching for both the student and the teacher consequently encourages dangerously black-and-white thinking. This leads to the all-too-common situation of the fresh-faced graduate not being able to comprehend someone else's abstract approaches to traditional problems. If innovation is the key to success in any field of career, wouldn’t you expect the industry to encourage innovation by starting at the roots of education? Start young. The earlier, the better.

Motivated students stay motivated when we get them to exercise their imagination and play into their natural sense of fascination and inspiration.  Otherwise, they resort to unguided attempts of understanding. They can convince themselves they are learning by purchasing and using fancy stationery, colourful notepads and redundant decorations. They can lose themselves in rote learning and lose track of what provides a deeper understanding. If we don’t do something about this, then we can expect our educated children to miss out on intellectual life and delude their identity into "academic" life.

Every student can pass... but at what cost?

Now don’t get me wrong here, having the opinion that “education is all about passing” sounds, quite frankly, as if it came from an edgy 14-year-old who refuses to do their schoolwork. I understand the value of education, how it provides the opportunity for socioeconomic mobility, creates jobs, stimulates innovative research to improve quality of life etc. It’s just that my main concern is in how it affects how we approach life, especially in the face of views and concepts that challenge the definition of expertise.

When it comes to fostering curiosity, education can be a great source of growing and maintaining it. These hidden gems of inspiration can be found in the classes that teach us how to learn. STEM degrees teach us how to systematically analyse and critique research and the Humanities teach us about the philosophy of logic. Due to my STEM background, I'm only informed enough to believe the former seems to be the one lagging behind in this capacity for change. If the curriculum put more emphasis on asking why we learn the things we learn, instead of learning for learning’s sake, we can restore the feeling of wonder that comes with earnestly attaining knowledge and dampen the anxieties of failing to achieve the passing mark.

Implementing such a change is definitely difficult. Education policy is a very complex issue, particularly as the demands of innovative work cultures seem to turn the heads of the progressive millennial. I still believe the bottom line of labour requires proficiency and knowledge over any new approach. The advantage of innovation as a result of fostered curiosity is clear, but creativity requires a foundation of solid theory. I admit, I’m not exactly sure how the current state of education can accommodate intellectual growth but I do have an idea of where certain weaknesses lie.

First off: provided that education receives sufficient funding, introducing personalised teaching would allow teachers to facilitate deep discussion, and foster student curiosity and imagination but at the same time produce adequate results. That being said, money is still the mediating factor here and this is where the socioeconomic aspect of education plays a part.

Academic elitism and equal opportunity

Not every school is funded equally. The self-sustaining problem of schools in poorer areas being more likely to have a lower grade performance is a result of a vicious cycle of the current state of education policy. Schools with lower rates of passing marks receive less funding as some cruel form of incentive to improve results. As a result, teachers receive less income and are pressured to ensure that ALL students pass. On paper, this is great for the health of the economy as easier entry into higher education for the poor provides an opportunity for those less fortunate by providing increased social mobility. The downside is that there is less emphasis on a deeper level of education for young talent, the naturally “gifted” or even the infuriatingly curious kid. These individuals are encouraged, as part of the grading system, to just be “good enough” and to never push themselves when their achievements have come all too easily.

A word of warning. Recognising and affirming this sentiment of deeper and less accessible learning can, unfortunately, lead to academic elitism. The internet’s recent fascination with the ‘Dark Academia’ fashion aesthetic, and its aspects of a desired “student” lifestyle can be criticised as the problematic romanticisation of intellectual gatekeeping. Although it can be seen purely as a fashion guide, the roots of its vapid glamorisation of private schooling and Oxford culture are troubling. Perhaps I'm not too familiar with the sub-culture yet but I do still hold some reservations about it all. Regardless, both calls for quality education and equal opportunity fail to find a common ground by recognising the benefit of maintaining an open attitude to curiosity, especially upon receiving that shiny certificate (and student debt!).

Lastly, education isn’t the sole factor when it comes to fostering curiosity. The variedness of someone’s capacity for curiosity may be inherent in intelligence and personality which is a whole topic in and of itself. I suppose if education does affect our imagination while in the classroom environment, then how do we know that we don't extend such a close-minded approach in our personal lives? How someone spends their free time can give a glimpse into how our curiosity can manifest.

Trying a new recipe, practising a different exercise technique and picking up a new hobby are all great activities for a curious mind. I believe someone is naturally curious if they display an openness to trying things or striving to understand why a new thing works. Such an attractive trait can even extend to relationship dynamics. Genuine attraction is a two-way street, where aspects of platonic and romantic interest are held together by a mutual curiosity about one another. So when opinions, dreams, perceptions and experiences are so unique to the individual, I urge you the reader, to be wary of how your own education has potentially promoted black and white thinking and damaged your ability to learn earnestly.