Still Curious S1E8 - Thoughts on care
Danu Poyner

We may care deeply, but we move within systems and structures that don't. Social systems in the end are just people and the patterns that play out in the millions of tiny interactions between them. The way we live our lives and the actions we take each day, are our lived experience of what we have learned about the world. No matter what the world believed it was teaching us, the lives we lead are the learning outcomes.

You're listening to the Still Curious podcast with me, Danu Poyner. At this point, I'm now six conversations into this podcast series, so I thought it would be a good moment to take a break from the usual interview format and instead to slide into your DMS for a bit to reflect on what's happened so far and to notice some of the themes that are already emerging.

Right at the outset, I observed that it's quite an achievement to make it through life with your curiosity intact, given most of us tend to lose it or have it suffocated along the way for one reason or another, just as part of life's daily grind. So I'm curious about people who do still have their curiosity intact.

I'm keen to understand how they move through life, what connects the various experiences they've had, and perhaps what we can learn from that. And perhaps most of all, for me, curiosity is a way of exploring the other preoccupation of this podcast series, which is about education, how we learn and in particular about the nature of life changing learning experiences that quicken our hearts, light our souls on fire and send us hurtling down new and unfamiliar paths.

I'm of the view there should be a lot more of that sort of thing. I've spent a fair bit of my life so far trying to understand why there isn't and now I'm really trying to focus on what I can do about it. One of the great things about a podcast series is that you can pick away at these things one little piece at a time and then hopefully over time accumulate something that's more than the sum of its parts.

So in this episode, I'd like to pick away a little at one piece in particular, which is about the connection between curiosity, learning and care. I'll offer some reflections on this, share another personal story and recap some of my guests insights, all with the usual sprinkling of quotes. For all of that, join me on the other side of the music break on today's episode of the Still Curious podcast.

Last time I did a solo episode, I shared a story from my freelance tutoring days about Jenny, who just wanted someone to show her how to use a computer. That story was really about the importance of care in the learning situation and that, as the tutor, the real breakthrough moment came when I dropped my assumptions about what I was going to teach Jenny and focused instead on being curious about what was going on for her. And you can listen to that story in Episode One. It's quite difficult often in life to find someone who cares. For a lot of my early working life I was in retail and customer service, and one of the many short-lived jobs I had was at the Optus shop, signing people up to mobile phone contracts.

People used to come in with all kinds of weird and wonderful questions and problems, most of which weren't about them buying a phone or a contract. One of my colleagues made a little box to put behind the counter and in it he put lots of handout cards with different phone numbers on for technical support, insurance manufacturer warranty, and so on. As the customer started to ask him a question, he'd reach into the box and hand them the relevant card before they finished their sentence and on the front of the box facing the staff, but away from the customer, he'd written in marker pen TSWC, tell someone who cares. It's quite clever to know what the outcome of a conversation is going to be before you've had it, and we're all familiar with those conversations. In focusing on the outcome, my colleague thought he was being efficient and he was. On the other hand, if you want to make absolutely sure that you'd kill any chance for curiosity, focusing on the outcome in advance is one of the very best ways to do it. So with that in mind, let's talk about school. Perhaps you remember the old Soviet joke, we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us. The classroom teaching ritual is a lot like that. We pretend to learn and they pretend to teach us. If, as we tend to assume, knowledge is some kind of capital T thing that you can count measure or otherwise pile up or dispense out, there's probably some kind of intuitive sense to the way most education is designed. At its most basic it works like this. We think the teacher has a stockpile of knowledge. There's some kind of rationing process by which this pile of knowledge is doled out to students in lumps over a set period, call it curriculum if you like. And then at the end of a set period through the alchemy of teaching, the students are now also supposed to possess the agreed upon knowledge.

And thus the overall stockpile of knowledge in the world has multiplied. To demonstrate that this exchange of knowledge has been successful, the students undergo a series of spot checks along the way where they are required to hold up certain bits of the knowledge at short notice for inspection, call that assessment.

If it seems enough of the knowledge has made it across, then we give them a certificate. Teaching in this sense is essentially an authoritarian exercise while learning effectively amounts to a process of becoming disciplined to the mold set by the curriculum. And this power relationship is neatly encapsulated within the innocent sounding phrase, learning outcomes.

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