Sunday, February 19, 2012

Natural Curiosity

I love the internet. I was sitting there thinking about creativity and learning and suddenly something pops up and points me in a little different direction.This picture floated around Facebook. It shows a subway in Washington D.C. Everyone is rushing by as a someone is playing a violin over near the wall. The point of the message is that people should stop to watch beauty.

Here's the story:
A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

Evidently this isn't the first time this has happened. One commenter says that Paul McCartney did this same thing in London, and no one stopped.  And, yes, paying attention to beauty around us IS an important thing we need to do. But what  I noticed about the story is that the children DID notice beauty.  They didn't look past him. They craned their neck to see what was going on, only moved along by their adult.

That natural curiosity is inside all of us. But after years of schools ringing bells, ending class times just when it was getting interesting, or even just making the presumption that each class time should be allocated X amount of time - no more, no less, we have essentially buried our natural curiosity. I used to think it was squashed out of us. But now I think of it more as heaps and heaps of deadlines, priorities (usually someone else's!), forced competition, and urgency. Those are what come from years and years of classroom exposure.

When we lived in Alaska, we used to go to a science museum called the Imaginarium. Clearly they believed in the benefit of hands-on learning, as each exhibit was about exploration and discovery. We would go every month with other families in our support group. My son would often gravitate to the fossil area. It was a giant sand pit with trucks and back hoes you could use to find the bones and stones that were buried below. Lots of times, the kids would spend their time building forts out of the sand piles, or setting up Indiana Jones inspired settings.

I remember the first time I took my kids to the Imaginarium. We were part of an organized class for the first hour, then we could spend the whole day there afterward if we wanted to. Often that's exactly what we did.  The kids had ended up in the sand pit/fossil area, and I was sitting with another mom.  Just as we were relaxing, in stormed a crowd of kids from school.  They were close in age to our kids, and there were a lot of them. I turned to the other mom who told me, "Just wait, they won't be here long." There was room in the sand for them to join ours, but they didn't. They just watched what our kids were doing. I didn't notice any commenting, nor did I notice that they really wanted to get into the sand. They talked among themselves for a few minutes, and then their teacher handed them a slip of paper - something for them to check off which exhibits they saw - and then she moved them to the next area.

I could see them from where I sat, and they didn't try to engage in anything that would take any time. They picked up a giant balloon wand, once or twice. They gently touched some noise maker. But they didn't stick with anything in particular. And then it was time for them to move to the next area and ultimately off to lunch.

I was struck by the thought that they weren't really engaging anywhere; they weren't encouraged to. And after years of bells ringing and teachers determining the amount of time they should focus, they simply kept it all at a very superficial level. They were rushed through with no time for exploring. Because exploring - really exploring - DOES take time. And all those kids in school missed that opportunity. They were basically being conditioned to set aside their natural curiosity. Over time, they'd forget about picking it up again.

Still, videos like this remind me that it's still in all of us. Some of us held tighter to our natural curiosity. So when the shackles of school were removed, they could easily reach through to rekindle that curiosity that was waiting for them. The rest of us take a little longer to reacquaint ourselves with that which is in us.

And then some of us, our children that were given time to discover and play, won't have to go looking for their natural curiosity.  It's been a big part of their lives all along.


Stacy @ Sweet Sky said...

Found you via the unschooling blog carnival and wanted to say that I enjoyed your post.

I have two boys (ages 8 and 5). We've been unschooling all along, and as time goes on I grow ever more grateful for what my children are able to experience and express because of unschooling and respectful parenting. Yay!

Take care,

Sue said...

Stacy, thanks for commenting!
Have fun with your boys! :)