Book Review: The Hungry Mind


I wanted a break from fiction, so this week I jumped into non-fiction with Susan Engel and her book The Hungry Mind - The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. While I have read plenty of books on creativity, I've never seen anything on curiosity. Engel herself admits:

"We know very little about what makes children more curious or less curious, under what circumstances curiosity can be encouraged, and how to build upon children's curiosity so that they learn well. In other words, how does curiosity develop?"

I love the idea of curiosity and certainly want my kids to have this as a leading trait, so why not get some expert insight?  As I perused the text I noticed statements like this:

" is clearer than ever that curiosity is the linchpin of intellectual achievement. People who are curious learn more than people who are not, and people learn more when they are curious than when they are not."

Yes!  I can recognize this as truth. I scanned for more nuggets.

I immediately liked Engel's insight on the importance of storytelling. When storytelling skills are encouraged and developed, Engel argues, a child's cognitive processes are enhanced.

"Parents who tell stories collaboratively with toddlers, who scaffold this kind of storytelling and regularly engage in storytelling as a way of reminiscing, have children who seem to end up not only telling stories differently than other children but are more likely to do so under a variety of circumstances."

And so I picked up the book expecting a bunch of similar, new insights.  And, in the end, they are there.  However, to be blunt, you have to dig.

The book reads like a white paper or a college psychology text, meticulously researched and carefully documented, but longer on theory than application. In the same way college professors take forever to get to their point, some of Engel's thoughts are tediously drawn out. She sites one researcher's finding that,

"children use questions to gain information about things that direct experience cannot help them with."

This seems painfully obvious.

But Engel sets up the study and makes the point that questioning has been studied and the research makes this conclusion. Does she do this so we believe her?

I would have believed this fact on anecdotal evidence alone, but she either doesn't trust the reader to make the leap, she's trying to cover herself from making rash statements, or she's tone deaf on how stifling academia details can be. In any case, the impact of her insight is lost in the morass.

Still, I had my favorite parts which served mostly as reminders.  For instance, I was fascinated that anxiety quells curiosity in toddlers.  People are drawn to novelty, but it's balanced out by the fear of the unknown.  In other words, "anxiety plays a subtle but powerful role in curiosity."

Engel draws a link to intelligence (and used a word I had to look up - vituperative - which is a good word!) and curiosity and theorizes (without making a claim for truth, sighting the need for more data)  individual variants may be tied to two pillars: "a kind of emotional daring or openness, and the intellectual ability to compare experiences."

O.K. Fascinating bits.

But what I really want to know is am I doing what I need to do to promote curiosity?

She sites research about kids needing plenty of alone time to discover their interests. She discusses allowing children's questions to lead conversations. She discourages preemptively answering questions, suggesting instead parents should say, "I don't know. Let's see what happens!"  And she argues, convincingly, how children develop more self-control when you give them some autonomy.

However, mostly this book isn't for parents.

If you're an educator, she'll speak and challenge you.  She quotes MANY examples of how curiosity is squashed in the classroom by measuring the amount of questions children ask. She's a big fan of fish tanks, terrariums and complex machines.

In the last three pages of the book she makes four suggestions for "the curious classroom."

The last three pages. Four suggestions.

And no, those suggestions aren't numbered or clearly stated which, strangely enough, makes me less curious about curiosity...