The curious fate of students who find nothing curious in schools

Dr. Michael Swickard is a radio host, columnist and former New Mexico educator.

Guest commentary

Michael Swickard, Ph.D.

© 2011

 Steve Jobs left us one principle above all others: the clients are the wellhead of concern. Regardless of technical details or manufacturing ease, everything went back to what was exactly right for those who would use the products. The genius of Steve Jobs was he could not be talked into anything that violated the principle.

We can transfer this thinking by Steve Jobs to public education. Public school students are not learning adequately. They are generally not thriving in our informational age. Our society has almost boundless energy to develop new communication products but we are not communicating well with the clients of public education.

The reason for this dysfunction in education may surprise you. The lack of overall success with our educational structures is centered in the fact the system does not focus on the clients regardless of what is said by educational leaders. It is a disgrace that most educational planning is about teachers, not students.

No Child Left Behind was focused on what? It is a political mandate for the system to spend enormous resources and time trying to label good teachers from bad. Despite the name, it is not designed to deal with each child’s ability to live an enhanced life in our country. In theory, teachers through accountability tests can show whether they are effective. It is further assumed a teacher labeled effective will be effective with the needs of students.

However, education at its core is about engaging the hearts and minds of students. Each heart and mind is different in the focus of attention but all operate exactly the same. To learn each student must be engaged by the activity. If they have absolutely no interest, no long-term learning takes place. You may find an exception, but as a general rule, schools do not engage students, they smother them with accountability tests of no interest to the students.

No Child increased everything that inhibits children learning. Example: what percentage of the public school student population enjoys or even finds interesting taking tests? Pretty close to zero. The actions of the public school are focused on students passing accountability tests. Teachers teach to the test. Students practice the test. At no time do students have the slightest curiosity or interest in test taking.

The core of our dysfunction is the schools are ignoring the most basic principle of learning. It is driven almost entirely by curiosity of humans and their need to have tools to satisfy that curiosity. Speaking for myself, curiosity is the one commonality in my life.

Over my 61 years, it is the currency of my life and the reason I became educated. Public school life for me was long years of anti-curiosity and I just barely made it to high school graduation. They kept trying to teach me stuff in which I had no interest. I may have passed but retained absolutely nothing forced upon me when I had no interest.

Throughout my years of public education, I insisted to anyone who would listen that the schools could not teach me anything to which I had no interest. They said they could. They did not. Nor, when I was a public school teacher (what irony) could I teach students who had no interest in my lessons. The only way for me to prevail was to get the students curious about my subjects. Otherwise it was the proverbial trying to teach a pig to whistle. They say you should not try to do so since you cannot do it and it only annoys the pig.

My first day in teacher education a professor asked us to define education. I came up with what has stayed with me: education is finding someone with something you want to learn. It has the two essential parts: a teacher with something a learner wants to learn.

The challenge for our society is to construct curiosity centered schools that focus the students need for literate and numerate tools to satisfy their curiosity. I find it curious that curiosity is missing from our school system at the core. Without it, students put in their time and escape with little to show for the time they spent.

Dr. Michael Swickard is co-host of radio talk show News New Mexico 6 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on a number of New Mexico radio stations and through streaming. Email:




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