Eric Schmidt on cultivating curiosity

GPS, Fareed Zakaria’s show on CNN, is at the tail end of the Sunday morning shows and it’s one of the best.  Yesterday Eric Schmidt from Google was a guest and made some fascinating predictions about when “it’ll be possible to literally know everything, to measure everything.”  But it was this short exchange on education that caught my attention:

ZAKARIA: And we are back with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google.

You know, I wonder about how we educate kids. I watch, you know, my kids go to school. And one of the things they have to do with great — what takes a lot of time is to learn to spell properly.  Is it worth teaching people how to spell properly in a world in which every — there’s spell checks everywhere?

SCHMIDT: You can imagine education changing a lot. After all, when I was growing up, they forced me to memorize everything. But now, why do I need to remember that? I just need to learn how to search for it.

So, whether it’s Google or your other choices for getting information, teaching will be learning about how to ask the right question, and then sorting through the choices and answer.

Most people now believe that the right way to think about education is, rather than a fixed textbook, rather here’s a subject, here’s a subject, here’s a subject. You guys go figure it out. All the information is out there now.

What you really need to do is to teach people to be curious.

When people say things to me now, I say, well, that might be true. And then I go to Google, and I check. And I become a little bit of an expert on that one thing. And then, if they’re really off, I might even say, you might check, because I don’t want you saying that wrong thing to other people.  It really changes your life when you have access so instantaneously to everything.
To the extent that Eric is right–that we should be intentional about cultivating curiosity–how would we go about doing that?  I think we would:

  • focus more on questions than answers
  • encourage students to become an expert in something a couple times each year
  • emphasize demonstrations of learning at least as much as test scores
  • take more field trips

I’m sure you can add several more to this list.  In short, schools would look and work differently if we really valued curiosity.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Chris Frank

Of course! I've heard teachers say that students who love to read are the most successful. That goes right along with Eric Schmidt's thinking on curiosity. Great post!

I think curiosity and creativity are intimately linked. If we had a curriculum that enabled students to attain and demonstrate mastery of content through creative projects, we'd see students who learned to recognize and follow their own curiosity. These projects could be expressed through the traditional arts/literature/writing as well as the technological arts such as movies/podcasts/slideshows.
Kids are born curious; school just takes it out of them, especially in the NCLB era. I think educators could learn some things from the unschooling movement, especially how kids are encouraged to find their own inner compass.
The flip side to having access to everything instantaneously is that you have to know what you care about and care to find out about. Hence curiosity (whose Latin root is cura--care, cure).

Sam Chaltain

Thanks for sharing this, Tom. I literally just wrote a book, called "American Schools", on the subject of creating optimal learning environments (see for details), and one of the schools I feature in-depth not only values curiosity -- it measures and assesses kids on it. See for yourself at and click on the rubric for "Curiosity & Wonder."

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