Did Einstein ask questions at school? or The power of curiosity.

In Ian Gilbert’s ‘Why Do I Need a Teacher when I’ve got Google?‘ we are treated to a highly readable and consistently humorous take on what has seemingly already become an outdated phrase: “21st century education”. Through the hook of a relevant and timely question in the title, Gilbert explores the history and evolving role of education in a constantly changing world. Like other education reformers before him, from Plato to Piaget (big jump I know) or Neil Postman to Ken Robinson, Gilbert uses the power of curiosity as a recurring theme. In chapter 15, “The f-word” (the word is fun, by the way!), Gilbert describes a journey he undertook with his students as they traveled around the British Isles, and in the process recounts a great anecdote of a young Albert Einstein:

Did a young Einstein ask a lot of questions at school?

Did young Einstein ask a lot of questions at school?

“The project was essentially a voyage of discovery from A to A. The whole point was to try to show how being curious can change everything, if you let it. Especially when you consider that, as a word, ‘curiosity’ has the same origins as the word ‘curator’ which means to look after. Curiosity is a survival drive within us all. If teachers tap into it, the battle for motivation in the classroom is half won. Whether it’s true or not I don’t know, but it has been said that Einstein’s mum used to ask him what questions he asked at school at the end of each day. I have repeatedly tried that with my three children over the years but they simply look at me gone out! School is the place where you go to be the passive recipient of other people’s knowledge as far as their experience has shown them. Yet, research shows that three- to four-year-olds ask, on average, 3,000 to 4,000 questions in a year. What happens to the toddler’s question-posing mania? Does it get knocked out of him or her by education’s fact-giving mania? It doesn’t have to be that way.”

– Ian Gilbert in “Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got Google?‘ (emphasis mine)

  This is the first I’ve heard of Einstein’s mum imploring him to ask questions at school, and I certainly do hope it’s true. It would explain a lot about Einstein’s path through school, his ability to question both authority and established norms, and his unending curiosity. I have read that Einstein’s fascination with light, atoms, and energy first came about when as a 12-year-old boy, he read Aaron Bernstein’s “People’s Books on Natural Science.” He became mesmerized with the idea of light travelling as a wave, and daydreamed endlessly about what it would be like to ride along a beam of light. He took this daydreaming approach with him for his post-secondary years as well. Through his university years, Einstein did not regularly attend many of his classes, thinking that much of what he was learning was ‘old science’ and not relevant to him anymore. He kept up to date with the latest discoveries on his own time, and in the process, probably annoyed many of his professors. Perhaps as a result, he was unable to secure a university position upon graduation, and famously resorted to taking up a rather ordinary position as a patent clerk in Switzerland. It was here, outside of the bubble of academia, that he had time to read current physics papers, reflect upon them, and conduct brilliantly creative thought experiments, or Gedankenexperiments, as he called them. These clever thought experiments would eventually lead to the publication of his own famous papers on relativity, Brownian motion, and the very nature of space, time, and gravity. [If you’re looking for good reads on Albert Einstein, I’d start with Walter Isaacson’s biography (there’s an illustrated coffee-table style version of it as well – great for the classroom!) and Thomas Levenson’s Einstein in Berlin.] The more I read about Einstein, the more interesting his path through school at the turn of the century appears to be. For the most part, Einstein had no time for the shackles of traditional schooling and the stuffy academic world, instead educating himself through reading, thinking, and asking questions. It seems that Albert Einstein achieved great success not because of his schooling, but in spite of it.

Einstein on Education:

I first came across these Albert Einstein quotes in teacher’s college, and the more I read and think about the subtle differences between learning, schooling, and education, the more they make sense.

413px-Albert_Einstein_photo_1920“The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” – Albert Einstein

I don’t mean to imply that in order to become a genius on the level of Einstein, one simply has to be curious, ask questions, and daydream about waves of light in class. There’s certainly more to it than that, and a little bit of structure and direction never hurt anyone. What I mean to get at is that in our schools, we have come to overvalue facts, answers, and being right, at the expense of imagination, questions, and being curious. What Ian Gilbert illustrates in his book is that in the 21st century, with the now-ubiquitous internet at our fingertips, the memorization of facts should be the least of our concerns. Of course this idea is nothing new or revolutionary in teacher circles, yet we continue to see the same old “study-the-material-and-cram-it-in-your-head-long-enough-to-answer-some-multiple-choice-questions-and-regurgitate-some-facts-in-a paragraph-or-two” approach at many schools. Where has the curiosity gone? I wonder if we will ever reach the point where, as Neil Postman has suggested, we reward a good question with more marks than a good answer. Young Einstein, and any young thinker or budding scientist would excel in that type of environment. In a world of prescribed learning outcomes, high-stakes exams, and the competition for those all-important grade point averages, how often do we give students the chance to be curious, to ask questions, and to imagine? It makes me wonder… how would young Einstein fare in a 21st century classroom?

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