Using the power of natural curiosity

Christopher Lloyd explains why connecting the dots of the past presents the most exhilarating way for young people to learn

Curiosity is our most precious natural instinct. It is how we learn all the most important life skills from talking to tickling, from cradle to grave.

Since Victorian times, knowledge has increasingly been chopped up into separate subjects – into a timetable, a syllabus or curriculum – most often by adults addicted to measuring and recording a student’s progress through constant tests and examinations.

All too often, the unforeseen consequence of this modern industrialisation of education is to kill off natural curiosity. We make people into experts in fragments of knowledge, denying them the chance to piece them together to see the bigger picture. Yet today, many of the most pressing issues of our times require creative, interconnected solutions. Dealing with climate change, economic prosperity, population growth, citizenship – all of them require a multi-disciplinary, cross-curricular approach.

Teaching in this way is far from impossible. Children who are empowered to follow their interests when they are learning find things out for themselves, becoming experts wherever their curiosity leads them. In this way they can become what nature truly intended – their own self-learning systems. Some home-educated children can provide role models for powerful, more interconnected learning paradigms that would work well in schools.

I have spent the last 10 years creating resources that are designed to present a big interconnected view of knowledge to young people, their parents and teachers. It uses a curiosity-driven approach to learning so that young minds can roam freely and stand back in awe at the most extraordinary story of all – far more incredible than any fantasy or fiction – the story of the universe and our home, the planet Earth, over 13.7billion years.

These are timeline-based resources – paper-based and digital – where you don’t have to start at the beginning and read to the end following the arbitrary path of a faceless author or textbook. Instead, you can start in the middle or wherever your interests lie and read left, right, up or down – without ever getting lost because of the timeline beneath. This is more what nature intended, because such resources allow a learner to go wherever their curiosity leads.

And how about unfolding the book into a 3m-long timeline? No need to stuff it on a shelf like other books because you can hang a timeline on a wall, spread it out on a table or a floor so several people can explore it and learn together, spotting things as they go, commenting, discussing, talking, debating …

Now take Shakespeare – traditionally one of the most intractable subjects demanded of children in schools. Far better than introducing a young person with a single play or scene is to present them with all 38 of his plays being performed at once in the Globe Theatre. This way the children can begin by spotting the ghosts (there are six plays with ghosts). Themes and emotions linking our own lives to these amazing stories, such as jealousy, love, revenge, disgust and joy, can all be explored visually using a big-picture, timeline approach which shows the connections between the characters in these plays and ourselves.

Today I divide my time between giving curriculum-enrichment workshops in schools for pupils and inset sessions for teachers on techniques for better cross-curricular integration. I always take a giant 8m-long timeline with me as a backdrop – then I approach history, nature, sport, science or Shakespeare using a coat of many pockets, each one containing an everyday object that is somehow connected to the big story I wish to tell. 

Christopher Lloyd is the author of ‘What on Earth?’. Workshops and timeline resources can be found at W: www.whatonearthbooks.com

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Thursday 4 November 2021, 11am (GMT)