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Op Eds

Getting Rewarded for Curiosity

By Eric J. Heller

Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, was famously curious about how the physical world worked.  He turned his curiosity into a career and was richly rewarded for it. For Feynman, the reward was not monetary, nor was it the accolades of his colleagues.  His reward was, in his own words, “the pleasure of finding things out.”

Feynman’s path is not unique.  Uncommon talent coupled with a real desire for knowledge is a powerful combination, and the best writers, artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs all have talent and curiosity.

Is curiosity a luxury most of us can’t afford, as we must bear down on demanding class work or our jobs?  Indeed, curiosity can cost you.  Suppose something catches your attention in class, and you spend hours or days trying to actually understand it, as opposed to the usual descriptive understanding.  Like a rat in a lab cage, you are soon administered a shock for stepping outside your assigned routine: you have not optimized your study time. Yet such devotion to something that interests you is the path to discovery, and best way to learn in the long run. Classes which have self-motivated student projects (with lots of faculty consultation available) are a step ahead in the right direction, but they are not sufficient.

It is the University’s job to foster and reward curiosity; satisfying curiosity is a far more positive experience than cramming for an exam. Think back on your best teachers. I bet you will agree they had a talent for inducing curiosity in subjects you never thought you would care about.

Harvard is taking steps in the right direction, encouraging its professors to offer courses relevant to life after college. That is indeed one of the ways to foster curiosity. Most of us are naturally more curious about how to formulate an energy policy that makes sense than we are about, say, entropy, but there are professors of chemistry at Harvard who can make you desperate to understand entropy,  in order to better understand the energy crisis .  Many other new Ged Ed offerings have been hatched with great care and with a mandate for relevance.  I am frankly proud of the effort Harvard is making to improve undergraduate education.

Nobody would deny that we have a long way to go.  It is still way too easy to fall into the teacher-student covenant: Students are working for a grade, anxious to know exactly what they have to do to get an A, and unhappy if that pathway is somewhat hazy.  Professors don’t like unhappy students, so they usually oblige, with the familiar sorts of lecture format, exams, and homework assignments, etc.

“This won’t be on the exam” is the surest way to get students to switch to Facebook on their open laptops.  What a shame! What if you really wanted to know, even if it wasn’t going to be on the exam?  This is exactly where I think Harvard is trying to go, although not every faculty member is on board, nor could you expect 100percent buy-in.

Students aren’t about to give up their interest in grades, especially at Harvard, where so many highly motivated students depend on them to land positions in the best jobs, medical schools, and graduate schools.  The solution? Reward curiosity! This is hard to do on a written exam.  It will take a larger faculty and more time for each professor spent teaching. I see this as our solemn duty, because an education which fosters curiosity and the critical thinking to go along with it lasts a lifetime.

Of course I have my pet solutions. Above I said “It is the University’s job to foster and reward curiosity.”  That applies to faculty too! I would love to see more incentives (there are some already, to be sure) for faculty members who are  curious about the process of teaching.  What if the University set up semester long workshops for faculty, complete with guest experts, best practices, case studies, video feedback, student feedback, etc. All faculty would be asked to enroll at some point.  Yes, I hear the collective groans of some of my colleagues.  The University would need to “incentivize” the workshops somehow.  That shouldn’t be difficult if the University is really committed to fostering this kind of academic growth.

The University should also think hard about admissions criteria.  Curiosity is not the same as achievement, test scores, and even good recommendations.   The truly curious have the most to gain from a Harvard education, and Harvard has the most to gain from them.

Eric J. Heller is the Abbott and James Lawrence Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Physics at Harvard University.

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Op EdsCommencement 2011