“Curiosity is deviant” Ian Leslie – Education
What’s the best way to use questions?
Not all questions are the same. Some challenge authority, break rules and send people down new pathways of thinking. Other questions take the safer road and are designed to gather new information. Regardless of how they are used, questions are the heart of student engagement. The more questions our students ask, the bettter critical thinkers they become.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts for a conversation about education using the Teach Different 3-Step conversation method. Make sure you go to teachdifferent.com to learn more, and check out our library of conversation plans, where we’ve compiled dozens of quotes, each with their own claim, counterclaim, and essential question.
Image source: Ian Leslie | With permission from Ian Leslie
Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators who have created the Teach Different conversation podcast to inspire all of us to think deeper, listen with more intention, and understand each other better. If you’re a parent, educator, or anybody who wants to think in new ways that build real understanding about what’s important in life, and to help others do the same, then you’ve come to the perfect place.
Welcome everybody to the Teach Different podcast. This week, we have an interesting quote from British journalist, speaker, and author Ian Leslie, with a quote about education. We have a wonderful guest today, Sarah Westbrook, whom you may know from her years at the Right Questions Institute. She’ll introduce herself when she weighs in on the quote. To remind everybody how this works, we’re going to share the quote, talk about the claim of the quote, what we think Ian Leslie means, then we’ll look at a counterclaim to the quote, something that’s equally reasonable, but a different way of looking at the world. We do this because in order for students to develop critical thinking skills, they have to get out of their comfort zone and look at the world from a different angle. That’s why we like to play with the quote in this way. We’ll end with a thoughtful question that you can take with you. Here is Ian Leslie’s very short, but very profound, quote. “Curiosity is deviant.“ “Curiosity is deviant.” Sarah, welcome to the show. Feel free to weigh in on this quote.
Sarah Westbrook 02:08 – Claim
Thank you for having me. I thought I would share a little about my background. I’m a former English teacher in the Boston area. Now I’m the Director of Professional Learning at the Right Question Institute. On a daily basis, my job is to think about questions and their importance in the classroom, but also their importance in settings outside of the classroom. The role of questions in healthcare, in legal settings, in social services, in higher education, and in legal settings. When I picked this quote, “curiosity is deviant,” what interested me is the connection between asking questions and power. When you think about the word deviant, or deviance, that means pushing back against power, or challenging power structures, or prevailing norms in some way. A lot of my work involves studying the power structures in classrooms that prevent some students from feeling able to ask questions. I think you have to consider that one of the power structures in place is us, the adults, and the way we talk about questions, or how we create space or don’t create space for questions. I think it’s possible that despite our best intentions, sometimes we treat curiosity as a side track, an extra, or as something that deviates from the teaching plan, and not as something that is core to it.
Steve Fouts 04:14
Interesting. I love this quote, Sarah, because Dan will tell you, the shorter the quote, the better.
Sarah Westbrook 04:23
Steve Fouts 04:24
We only have three words. Now, that’s the good part. The challenging part is that I needed to look up two of the words. Curiosity is a common word that kids are going to know, but deviant may not be as familiar. I’m picturing this in a classroom. The first thing I would do is circle curiosity and deviant, and discuss their definitions. Deviant was very close to what you were saying, but it didn’t mention power. The definition I found said, departing from usual or accepted standards, which is what you mentioned. Curiosity was defined as a strong desire to know, or learn something, which I thought was really straightforward. So, what is Ian Leslie trying to say about curiosity? Is the strong desire to know something going against the grain in some way? Anyway, that’s how I kind of unpacked it.
Sarah Westbrook 06:07
I think it’s interesting, because you could have a more generous interpretation, or a slightly darker interpretation. The most innocent way to think about it is that curiosity takes you off the beaten path and on wonderful adventures. It’s not linear, but cyclical or iterative. Naturally you’re not going to stay on whatever path you were on because new paths will open up. I love the word deviance, because there’s a negative connotation, at least for me, about who’s been labeled deviant in our society. Deviance has been used to regulate behavior. That’s where I start thinking about power. You could also look at the exact same three words and interpret it as asking questions gets you into trouble. Asking questions challenges people who don’t want to be challenged. These three little words are very interesting, and you can read the quote in a few different ways.
Steve Fouts 07:37
Asking questions. Yeah. Go ahead, Dan.
Dan Fouts 07:39
I definitely read it the second way, Sarah, that this will get you into trouble. It is deviant when kids ask really good questions. I don’t think they’re purposely trying to challenge your authority as a teacher, but they are getting inside your head, dictating your thought process, and stopping our line of thinking. It is a power thing. It’s a challenge of authority, but I would argue, an appropriate challenge to authority. Teachers should have thick skin to be able to tolerate and encourage questions. Unfortunately, I don’t think that happen in all classrooms.
Steve Fouts 08:39
While you were talking, Dan, I thought of students who try to take teachers off track. I don’t think they are doing it out of curiosity. Sophistry can disrupt things, be deviant, and not have a true learning motivation. I don’t know why that occurred to me, Dan, when you were talking, but I was thinking of how some students challenge teachers to up their game and ask really good probing questions that might take you off track, but it brings the class to a higher understanding. Others are playing around a little bit and not that serious about curiosity. I don’t want to ruin this quote, but that was my quick thought.
Sarah Westbrook 09:41
Well, it is interesting. I would say curiosity is largely positive, and has been widely embraced by a lot of the people who talk about inquiry education. Deviant is a really challenging word, and it’s funny to put them together. I wonder if the quote is saying that curiosity shouldn’t be perceived as deviant, or that all curiosity has a little bit of deviance in it? That’s why sometimes people don’t like being asked questions. I obviously think about the classroom a lot, but I also think about the settings where curiosity and questions are welcome. What are the settings where you don’t feel able to ask questions?
Dan Fouts 10:49
That’s a really good question. I immediately thought of the medical profession where it’s not acceptable to ask doctors questions. This is seen as a challenge to their authority. That’s one setting, Sarah, where curiosity isn’t socially accepted as much as it should be. Steve, did you have something?
Steve Fouts 11:20 – Counterclaim
You mentioned the medical profession, and I thought of the importance of questions when you’re doing medical research. When you’re trying to figure out how to cure cancer, or the source of some disease, you have to be a very curious person to break a mold. There’s a reason that it hasn’t been cured thus far, and it’s probably because everyone is staying on the same path. I took your example, Dan, but I think curiosity, and the idea of it being deviant, actually supports the medical profession. For the first time in a while, Sarah, we’re already playing with the counterclaim that you introduced very naturally. There are times when curiosity and pursuing knowledge is appropriate. It’s not deviant, but encouraged. Maybe that should be the goal. The greatest learning communities are ones where people are really excited and motivated to ask these questions. It’s as natural as breathing air. I’m kind of moving into the counterclaim, but either of you can take whichever one you want at this point. It’s no holds barred.
Sarah Westbrook 13:07
I don’t know whether I’m making a claim or counterclaim. You made me think about a mathematician. I think his name was George Cantor. He made significant contributions to the study of math and understanding infinity. I think about the first person who suggested washing hands before going into surgery. These are people who made significant contributions to their field, because they had the temerity to question the standard procedure at the time, but they were often widely discredited. George Cantor was questioning infinity and the boundaries of mathematics in a way that upset some religious forces at the time. I wonder if there’s always this double edge to curiosity. It is necessary for innovation, but can get you into trouble. You have to be willing to take both together, maybe.
Dan Fouts 14:43
Yeah, it’s both. I think it’s both together, depending on how you’re thinking about it. To work the counterclaim a little bit, asking questions is a way to gather new information for a lot of kids. That’s the way they see curiosity. They want to gather more data and information so that they can make a better decision. They’re not there to challenge a teacher with a new way of thinking. They’re just doing what they need to do to follow the rules, and comply with the educational system. That is not the worst thing in the world, to conform to an institutional structure. Getting along is a really important skill that everybody has to master. Being a follower is important. I think curiosity is deviant. Maybe we should look at asking questions as being a groundbreaking leader. Maybe people aren’t like that, and that’s okay.
Steve Fouts 15:59
Socrates wasn’t like that. Sorry, I had to put that one in. Sarah, I interrupted you.
Sarah Westbrook 16:12
No, that’s okay. Do you have a Socrates quote?
Steve Fouts 16:19
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Based on what you said at the beginning, Sarah, that curiosity is deviant. It breaks rules, norms, and structures, but it’s also a true desire to know and learn something that may get you into trouble. Socrates got into trouble. He was executed, because he was too curious. I can’t think of a better example of that dual edge to curiosity.
Dan Fouts 17:08
Maybe the delicate teaching challenge is how can teachers model the value of curiosity without getting kids in trouble later in life for being too curious. We help them learn how to ask all kinds of questions, some of which are deviant, perhaps, but others obey the rules. You have to know when to use questions at the appropriate time, which is a life skill learned through experience. Sarah, at the Right Questions Institute you work with legal and medical professions. Would you talk a little bit about the audiences that you work with that connect with this quote?
Sarah Westbrook 17:53
Well, a lot of my work is with K-12 teachers and systems, but I have colleagues who work on a legal empowerment program. She works with people who are in various legal settings. Lawyers are very good at asking questions in general, an occupational hazard. The clients that they work with are not very good at asking questions. There are a lot of parts to the legal system, and it can be a really bad idea to start asking questions. It’s a key skill that you need to learn in order to navigate the process. What is the first step that you need to take?
My colleague, Naomi, was working with an organization that was supporting a woman. She was taught how to ask questions, and was being considered for a pro bono attorney. When the pro bono attorney met with her, she decided to take her case, because she liked the questions that this woman had learned how to ask and was asking about her own case. I think that’s a very different way to think about your job as a lawyer or as a legal advocate. Teachers are accustomed to thinking. It’s their job and responsibility to develop students’ skills, and that includes questioning skills. It’s harder and more challenging to think about other jobs as teaching professions. You are in a position where you could be teaching skills, but that’s not necessarily the way someone’s accustomed to seeing themselves. They have limited time and limited interactions with real world stakes attached to them. If a student doesn’t ask a question in the classroom, they don’t suffer the same type of consequences.
Dan Fouts 20:32
Like if you don’t ask questions about alternative treatments for something that you need. Definitely. These skills that we impart to students, we hope are transferable to other areas of their lives.
Steve Fouts 20:55
It’s contextual. There’s a tact that you have to understand with questioning. You have to develop a higher awareness of whether you should be using a question in this case. Maybe it’s better to be quiet and listen.
Dan Fouts 21:15
If it’s perceived as too deviant, you might not get the reaction that you need and the information that you desire.
Steve Fouts 21:22
People will be defensive.
Dan Fouts 21:23
This is very subtle.
Sarah Westbrook 21:28
I think it’s important to say that it could be perceived as deviant. Are you in a situation where the person that you’re asking perceives you as curious, or do they perceive you as deviant? Based on the person you’re dealing with, or the type of system you’re dealing with, are they going to be receptive to your questions or not?
Steve Fouts 22:05
That is so well said, Sarah. Most of my teaching career was on the west side of Chicago in an urban environment. In that community/culture, talking too much or asking too many questions is not viewed as positive. The person being asked the questions perceives an agenda, and will be reluctant to answer any questions. I thought of how my students would react to a very curious person. They would be really curious about why they’re curious.
Sarah Westbrook 23:05
I had a teacher from a Caribbean country in one of our online courses, recently, who quoted me a common phrase or adage that she grew up with, which was along the lines of, don’t be a busy body. Asking questions is the mark of a busy body. Don’t be nosy. I don’t think that’s uncommon. I think that you could talk to a lot of people from different places, and that’s a message that we’ve learned. Deviance is what we’ve learned. So, when you’re working with people who have learned repeatedly that asking questions gets you into trouble or asking questions is not welcome, then how do you make curiosity the norm?
Dan Fouts 24:19
Another good question, Sarah.
Steve Fouts 24:21
I have an answer.
Dan Fouts 24:23
Okay. What is it, Steve?
Steve Fouts 24:24
Get them to ask questions as much as possible, then there’s less pressure. Can you teach the value of questioning by inspiring the person you’re with to ask questions? I’ll put that one out there.
Dan Fouts 24:47
Well, here’s where you talk about the QFT, Sarah.
Sarah Westbrook 24:54
Yep. Well, the QFT, or the question formulation technique, is a strategy to teach people how to ask questions, essentially. It’s really easy. We have it down to one page. It’s a deceptively simple strategy that is pretty powerful. You learn that when you can ask your own questions, then a lot of doors open to you. It’s a foundational skill for self-advocacy. I think what we do in the classroom is preparing kids to be citizens, to be participants in various parts of our society that, frankly, are very much in need of people who can ask questions, self-advocate, and participate more effectively.
Dan Fouts 25:48 – Essential Question
Yes, and I’ve used the QFT for over 15 years. It is deceptively simple. Like anything else, once you do it a few times, you understand the protocol. It’s a great way to have the kids take a leadership role. To your point, Steve, the student is setting the culture of the classroom. It’s not the teachers responsibility to model questioning. The students do it, too. It’s a shared responsibility.
Well, this has been wonderful, Sarah. We went in some interesting directions with the quote. I think we did a really nice job with the claim and other perspectives and interpretations. An essential question that we prepared is what is the best way to use questions? It’s general, but a good question that could come from this conversation. What’s the best way to use questions? We appreciate your expertise, and what you, Dan, and Louise do for the educational community. It’s been a pleasure working with you, and we hope to continue into the future. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Sarah Westbrook 27:11
Thank you for having me. It’s been so much fun.
Steve Fouts 27:14
Thank you, Sarah.
Sarah Westbrook 27:16
Dan Fouts 27:18
Alright, take care. Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and are confident that conversations like this are possible with just a little bit of planning and a three step method. Make sure you go to teachdifferent.com to learn more, and check out our library of conversation plans, where we’ve compiled dozens of quotes, each with their own claim, counterclaim and an essential question. Good luck, and don’t forget to teach different with conversations and make a difference every day.