A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 24 2010

Darwin, the Galapagos, Persistent Curiosity and the Student

One species of finch

How do we as educators unleash the inner Darwin in every child? Having just returned from a weeklong cruise in the Galapagos Islands (what I called the ultimate professional development), I find myself constantly looping back to this question.

The implicit task that I had set out to do spurred my thinking along these lines. What was my task, you may ask? I sought to reimagine Darwin’s scientific voyage by reading The Voyage of the Beagle* while making my own observations on Nature.

Half of my time I explored the wonders of the Galapagos: the hilarious nuances of the blue-footed booby’s mating ritual; the marine iguana’s sauntering pattern across the ocean-abutting lava fields; the shrill, yet melodious, chirruping of the American Oystercatcher; the loop-de-loops of the surprisingly anthrophilic sea lions; and, of course, the magnificent geologic formations that pepper the archipelago.  A selection of the 1300+ photos taken:

The other half of my time—at least when I was not lazing in the Jacuzzi—I found myself immersed in Darwin’s utterly captivating travelogue and scientific notebook. By page 20, I was convinced that I could trust Darwin to be brutally honest: “[boobies] are of a tame and stupid disposition, and are so unaccustomed to visitors, that I could have killed any number of them with my geological hammer.”  Once I placed my faith in Darwin, I traveled back to the past and followed him on his 5-year voyage around the world, observing, among other things, his repulsion to slavery in Brazil; his contrary-to-the-times idea that large quadrupeds did not require “luxuriant vegetation” to survive; his Argentinian Revolution-induced exposition on the principles of good government; his vivid description of the horse-taming process; and, of course, his fascinating internal debate about the “nature vs. nurture” experiment that the adoption of Fuegians represented.

This is all well and good, but I mustn’t digress too far.

*****

I learned and discovered plenty on my own seafaring voyage. But, in thinking about my classroom and student achievement (and all the other things that a teacher on summer break might be thinking about), I also discovered that Darwin possessed a combination of character traits that allowed him to become the world-changing naturalist that he was.  The Voyage of the Beagle showed me that Darwin was, above all, persistent and curious.  In fact, more than being simply “persistent and curious,” Darwin best represents what I call “persistent curiosity.”

Darwin’s persistence was heroic. One must remember that Darwin in 1831 was a recent university graduate and his official role on the voyage was to serve as a companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy (who, fittingly, was also in his twenties).  Furthermore, though he embraced the journey as it progressed, he had been extremely wary about making such a trip, especially since his father desired that he enter the ministry and since Darwin had to personally finance his participation in the trip.  The voyage for him was not necessarily a dream come true.

Yet, once he was aboard, and the Beagle had departed Plymouth Harbor, Darwin demonstrated his persistence in countless ways.

  • He persisted through seasickness.  Even though he actually spent the bulk of the 5-year journey on land, every second of his time on sea brought nausea and vomiting.  In his correspondence with home he often wrote about wanting to quit.  For someone so wracked by seasickness, Darwin persisted admirably.
  • As he grew into his role as acting naturalist, Darwin worked tirelessly to explore the lands for new species. On one mountainous hike near Bahia Blanca, he “got [to the top of a peak] with extreme difficulty; every twenty yards I had the cramp in the upper part of both thighs, so that I was afraid I should not have been able to have got down again” (115).  A good century and a half before the advent of the Gatorade Age, he didn’t let the lack of electrolytes bother him.
  • Finally, he exhibited an unfathomable level of persistence in the face of what is my biggest obstacle–mosquitoes.  While hunting on the banks of the Uruguay, “the mosquitoes were very troublesome. I exposed my hand for five minutes, and it was soon black with them; I do not suppose there could have been less than fifty, all busy sucking” (141).  His coolness about these itch-inducing pests—likely way before Off! was invented—stuns me.

Darwin was Nature’s Energizer Bunny, a relentless worker who didn’t slow down no matter how many tar balls or banana peels were thrown in his path.

But if his persistence was heroic, Darwin’s curiosity was Godlike. Darwin was a man who would—almost literally—never leave a stone unturned.  He asked the deepest of questions and he asked them about everything.  Every page is littered with questions. In Patagonia, he pondered the extinction of species:

“What shall we say of the extinction of the horse? Did those plains fail of pasture, which have since been overrun by thousands and hundreds of thousands of the descendants of the stock introduced by the Spaniard? Have the subsequently introduced species consumed the food of the great antecedent races?  Can we believe that the Capybara has taken the food of the Toxodon, the Guanaco of the Macrauchenia, the existing small Edentata of their numerous gigantic prototypes? Certainly, no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated exterminations of its inhabitants” (179).

Anyone can ask endless questions.  But his questions were driven by Curiosity, which sharpened his focus.  He asked questions not simply to ask them, but in order to find answers to things about which he was curious (little did he know that these answers would help him formulate and then refine his revolutionary theories).

But his curiosity was more than philosophical; he constantly poked and prodded his environment with the stick of Curiosity.  When he discovered the marine iguana—“a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements” (390)—in the Galapagos Islands, he became intrigued by the fact that, though it found food in the sea, “when frightened it will not enter the water” (391).  Rather than simply pondering this question away, he sought to find an answer by taking action.  He ended up throwing one iguana “several times as far as I could, into a deep pool left by the retiring tide,” only to discover that it invariably returned “in a direct line to the spot where it stood” (391).  He frustratingly grabbed this very same iguana by the tail and hurled it into the ocean several times more.  Each time it returned (perhaps Darwin had found the “Darwin of the iguanas”).  His conclusion? “Hence, probably, urged by a fixed and hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety, whatever the emergency may be, it there takes refuge” (392).

Eventually, Darwin became very curious about the differentiation of species in so similar and geographically-proximate islands.  The mockingbird species on the archipelago caught his attention first, but this set off a chain of ideas that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.  Imagine the follies of a world in which humans were oblivious to the idea of evolution!

At this point, a critic might interject that persistence and curiosity are common traits. We all know people who are persistent as well as ones who are curious. I know students who persist in using their cell phones in class, despite any and all obstacles and consequences the teacher throws their way; I know students who are curious about every detail of a teacher’s private life, or about the number of different ways a teacher can be depicted on paper.  Curiosity and persistence, by themselves, and applied in the wrong way, are not necessarily great character traits.

What was striking and exceptional about Darwin was the way his character combined those two traits. Indeed, it was his melding of these two traits that allowed him to succeed.  But in what way did he mix the two?  His curiosity certainly did not nurture his persistence; rather, his persistence flowed into his curiosity, nourishing it and allowing it to outlast any inclination to give up the search for the answers to Nature’s largest mysteries.   He had “persistent curiosity.”

(By now it may be clear that I respect Darwin tremendously.)

*****

But why all the hubbub about Darwin?  What application does my lengthy appreciation have to the classroom educator? Well, if we can agree that Darwin is a “model” student in every sense of the phrase, how do we get our students to develop “persistent curiosity”? Can we unlock the inner Darwin in every child?

(At this point, I realize that I’ve far exceeded the length of my typical blog posts–does this show persistence?–so I’m going to keep my answers brief.)

First, how do we get students to show persistence?

There are two things.  First, provide challenges.  Students will have no reason to be persistent if they are not confronted by challenges.  But make sure they are scaffolded and within their zone of proximal development.  Second, emphasize hard work.  Teach students that, though ingenuity that leads to “shortcuts” are often useful, there is no substitute to simply exert more effort, to sacrifice in order to gather that additional species or explore that uncharted territory.

Second, how do we get students to show curiosity?

Again, two things.  First, provide challenging questions.  Curiosity is piqued by inquiry.  Darwin was the exemplary questioner, always wondering and pondering and observing.  If a classroom teacher asks “essential questions” that challenge students’ worldviews or belief systems, they will likely become even more curious to find answers—even if there are no “correct” ones—which will spur even more curiosity.  Second, recognize and nurture students’ passions.  We are most curious about the things we are passionate about.  Help students become curious in those passions—even if they may not be “ideal” passions—and then lead them into applying that curiosity, if necessary, in other more “important” spheres.

Finally, how do we get students to develop “persistent curiosity”?

To develop “persistent curiosity,” we must move students beyond being simply persistent and curious independently.  Instead, we need to show our students that when they persist in feeding their curiosities with new ideas, they will be learning more about themselves and the world around them.  In this undertaking, students need to see the intrinsic value in aspiring towards Truth, that by taking one step closer to Truth, one betters oneself.  Darwin himself exercised his scientific faculties to strive towards a fuller Truth.  And, damn, did he better himself.  Thus, by building up persistence and curiosity independently, and then adding the element of Truth into the equation, we just might be able to help students develop “persistent curiosity”.

Hopefully, then, one of these students with persistent curiosity will figure out how to close the Achievement Gap. That’s the Truth.

*I read the 1937 Harvard Classics edition of the book edited by Charles W. Eliot and published by P.F. Collier (which I found for $6.50 on Ebay!).  All page references are based on this edition.

while hunting on the banks of the Uruguay,

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…


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