Curiosity and conformity

Continuing some of the themes that have been lurking just below the surface of my past three posts, I turn to an essay by Joel Wagner. Most of his essay actually springs from a blog post by a different author, Lachlan Brown, who inspired Wagner to write about how he fosters creativity — first in himself and then in his students.

Frankly, I’m always a bit suspicious of these “10 Habits of…” books and posts. They smack too much of the worst sort of self-help manuals. Why 10? Isn’t it usually seven? Why seven? Let’s put these suspicions aside and look at the ten habits:

  1. Daydreaming
  2. Observing
  3. Spending time in solitude
  4. Seeking novelty
  5. Embracing failure
  6. Taking risks
  7. Following their passions
  8. Being flexible
  9. Seeing the big picture
  10. Thinking differently

Of course the single phrases don’t tell you a lot, so you’ll probably going to want to read the full-paragraph descriptions of each. Then you may want to compare Wagner’s list to the Attributes of a Mathematician that I discussed two years ago:

A mathematician values…

  • Persistence
  • Communication
  • Resilience
  • Critical thinking
  • Logic
  • Curiosity
  • Creativity
  • Organization
  • Collaboration

What? Only nine? OK… a serious comment about ten or nine or seven: I have this hypothesis, possibly ill-founded, that the people who pick ten or seven have started with that number and then tailored the items to fit it. The right way is to do what we did at Weston: brainstorm a list, edit it, and however many you come up with is the  number of items in your list.


Back to content now: Although there is some overlap, or near-overlap, between the lists, the tone is very different. That’s possibly because the second list was created by a group of math teachers focusing on how to instill the habits of a mathematician in our students. Wagner’s goal, of course, is different, though definitely not contradictory. I’m going to try to focus on both lists this fall.

Let me close by quoting Wagner’s observations on group work:

Some creative students do not like group work. At all. I’m one of them for sure. I don’t recommend eliminating all group work, as it provides a valuable lesson in dealing with uncomfortable situations for these students. But if your entire curriculum is based in groups, don’t be surprised when you alienate many of the best minds in your class.



Categories: Teaching & Learning