Producing exam-ready pupils is often at the cost of extinguishing their child-like curiosity and inquisitiveness
Fact: exciting interest is the key to engaging students in learning
When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris in 1911, one of the suspects brought in for questioning was Pablo Picasso. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece of the lady with the enigmatic smile, thought to be Lisa del Giocondo, bears a strong resemblance to many Renaissance-era depictions of the Virgin Mary. There are even fringe theories suggesting the portrait represents that other biblical Mary, Mary Magdalene.
At the time the Marian (meaning relating to the Virgin Mary) Mona Lisa was being stolen, the name Mary – in its various spellings – was one of the most popular in Europe. Exactly 100 years before the theft, in 1811, nearly one in every four British women were named Mary. As recently as 1961, Mary was still the most popular girl’s name in the US. Today, however, Mary doesn’t even make the top 100. The stolen Mona Lisa was recovered in 1913 but the name Mary, at least in Europe and North America, has yet to do the same.
This column is not about art, religion or women called Mary. These opening statements are simply, I hope, interesting facts. These are the type of things you might learn watching QI, the long-running British TV quiz show based on facts. QI stands for quite interesting; the title also represents a subtle poke at the concept of IQ, or intelligence quotient.
QI’s creator John Lloyd is convinced that interest is the key to engagement and a prerequisite for intellectual growth and the development of knowledge and wisdom. Speaking at the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) in 2017, he said: “I believe that interestingness is the solution to everything, without exception. When you’re interested, all sorts of things happen. You become much less judgmental. You are much more open to other people.”
Lloyd is also the creator of other iconic British TV shows like Blackadder and Spitting Image. Lloyd suggests that all his creative work springs from his interest in provoking interest in his chosen topics. Blackadder was an attempt to make history interesting while Spitting Image was an attempt to make an audience engage with politics. I watched Spitting Image as a child and I can name more of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet than I can Theresa May’s. I also attribute my enduring interest in history to watching Blackadder as a child.
Lloyd now has plans to launch an explicit educational initiative called the QI boot camp. The basic idea is to have students looking at vast amounts of information in search of fascinating facts. He also suggests that teachers might consider using interesting facts as hooks at the start of each lesson. If students are engaged in this way, they are more likely to develop a lifelong love of learning. At present, the threat of failure is overused as the primary means of inducement.
The QI boot camp scheme is scheduled to be piloted across several private schools in the UK. If the approach proves useful, then there are plans for a broader nationwide roll-out. For a long time, we have parroted phrases such as "make learning interesting" and "make learning fun" but with little effort being put into developing any methodology aimed at achieving this end. Interest is the key to engagement and there is a growing concern that too many students are hopelessly disengaged. Granted, we still produce pupils capable of passing exams, but too often this is at the cost of extinguishing their child-like curiosity and impish inquisitiveness.
Psychologists consider interest and its close cousin curiosity to be emotions. More specifically, in some models of emotion, they are classed as both positive and energising. As an emotion, interest directs our attention and causes us to focus on things while curiosity drives us towards further exploration.
My challenge as an educator is not to tell someone to put their phone away or shut their laptop but instead to do or say something that causes their attention to focus on the object of the lesson – and then perhaps pose some questions that arouse curiosity, such as: how can we be sure that the Mona Lisa recovered in 1913 was the original painting? Has the name Mariam, like Mary, decreased in popularly across the Arab world in recent decades? And if not, why not?