For the new economy, curiosity before literacy

We exist in a world of uncertainty.

The following are true now and getting truer:

The traditional career path of high school > college  > lifelong career > stable retirement with pension is fading or gone in many industries.

My generation is crippled by student loan debt. This affects the decision to buy houses, pursue certain careers, and start families. This may affect students’ decisions to pursue traditional education paths in the future.  

My generation might not do better than my parents’ generation did.  According to a 2014 article from the Pew Research Center:

[A]fter adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.

So, many people cannot rely on checking the boxes of a standard education and hope to live a comfortable middle-class existence. Further, consider our education system, which trends towards standardization and compliance. This creates workers that meet the needs of large corporations, the same corporations that are not paying workers any better than they were a few decades ago.

How do we teach when we’ve realized this?

An antidote to uncertainty is curiosity.

Before this post gets too bleak, let’s pause for a moment. With the decline of the traditional career path, there is also a never-before-seen opportunity for learning. Students can learn anything right now if they want to. See YouTube, Khan Academy, Udemy, etc. Most of the classic books are available for free online, too.  You can learn to code without leaving your basement.

So if content is ubiquitous and free, then what has value? It’s the desire to learn all this stuff.

Curiosity is the valuable asset for students today. Its the difference between wasting hours on smart phone apps, or teaching oneself to build their own.

Does literacy get in the way?

Ironically, our pursuit of literacy skills may stifle this super-valuable curiosity.

If a student is curious about becoming a physical therapist, she will read dense anatomy texts.  A student who is curious about video games will read an eleven-part series about dragons.  A student who is curious about the military will read maps, charts, primary source documents, and other stuff that would be classified as rigorous. Those are just the first three examples I can think of from this past school year.

But the opposite is not likely. Forcing students into better reading skills doesn’t lead to curiosity. Sometimes, I do too much literary analysis.  I inadvertently encourage fake reading. I assign bad reading homework.  I may do these things in the name of increasing student literacy skills, but they are not likely to lead to authentic curiosity. Students need both.

Sometimes, I have to step back from getting students to read grade-level texts independently. I need to focus on getting kids interested in learning and trust that it will lead to them learning through engaged reading.

Let’s lead with curiosity.

Consider this story, excerpted from chapter 1 of Hacking Literacy:

So, while I had to alter my approach and expectations, I’d argue that Kyle was moving in the right direction. He was moving towards intellectual curiosity and, hopefully, towards engaged reading. This is the type of behavior that students need–now, more than ever.

What other skills are more valuable today than ever? Share in the comments.


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