Good Reads: On Curiosity

I first came across a post in my Facebook news feed – The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by Maria Popova. Within a day, from an entirely different source, in an entirely different channel (email), I came across this video. Too much of a coincidence! I tweeted both but felt that I need to capture the context in a single post.

In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.

That was compelling enough for me to take a closer look at the original paper(pdf). A few snippets.

…throughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.
… curiosity, which mayor may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered. Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.”
At no period of Faraday’s unmatched career was he interested in utility. He was absorbed in disentangling the riddles of the universe, at first chemical riddles, in later periods, physical riddles. As far as he cared, the question of utility was never raised. Any suspicion of utility would have restricted his restless curiosity. In the end, utility resulted, but it was never a criterion to which his cease- less experimentation could be subjected
Some of earlier posts related to Curiosity:

I Love Teachers

I might have said this before, but it is worth repeating – I love teachers.

My grandpa was my first teacher. He was a school teacher. I watched him invent new methods to make people learn to read better, write better and do Math better. I think great teachers work to improve the world – one student at a time.

I think teaching is one of the noblest professions in the world. Teachers have a huge impact. I used to accompany my grandpa to the vegetable market. He was frequently stopped and saluted by one of his students. They would walk up to him and say “Sir, do you remember me? I was in your class of …” and talk about their current jobs or studies. It felt good to be walking with a person known to so many people in a small community.

I met many great teachers, during my school days. Our school was not one of the best, or well known. It was in a poor section in North Madras (now Madras is called Chennai). But some of the teachers we had were amazing people. I developed an interest in subjects like Math and Science because we had great teachers for those subjects. I used to marvel at their knowledge and dedication.

Great teachers have a few attributes in common. I mentioned this in another post on Attributes of a Great Teacher.

Sometimes I wonder why I did not become a professional teacher. One reason may be that I got interested in computers early after I finished my studies. Programming tends to be a very intoxicating career choice. I am making up for it, now,  by trying to teach whenever I get an opportunity.

I can’t think of a better way to start a new year than thanking all the great teachers out there, working against all the odds to make this world a bit better.

Attributes of a Great Teacher

Some of the teachers who inspired me had many of these attributes. The greatest one was my grandfather. I had the privilege of watching him closely as I was growing up. He did not have a very high level of education but I have never seen any one with such unparalleled dedication. I don’t know whether they know it or not, but good teachers have a lot of influence on their students.

My first teacher was my grandfather.  I had the privilege of watching him closely as I was growing up. I have never seen any one with such unparalleled dedication. I don’t know whether they know it or not, but good teachers have a lot of influence on their students. In their tenure as a teacher (20-30 years or more) they probably have the potential to  influence 20-50K students directly. According to Teachers without Borders, there nearly 60 million teachers in the world.

Attributes of a great teacher:

  • Dedicated
  • Motivated and Motivating
  • Engaging
  • Some times Entertaining
  • Ability to tell great stories
  • Knowledge of subject matter
  • Challenges students to think
  • Innovates in teaching methods
  • Life-long learner
  • Has Infinite patience
  • Not judgemental
  • Understands student’s difficulties,
  • Understands student’s learning styles
  • Takes pride in students’ achievements

If I love this profession so much, why did I not take up  teaching profession? I ask myself that question a lot of times. I don’t know the answer. I studied engineering and jumped into a job and never looked back. But the most fun part in all my jobs and all my startups was the opportunity to teach.


Mar 3, 2014

I found Good vs. great teachers: how do you wish to be remembered? and it is worth a read. A small fragment from that post (please go and read it to get all the qualitative differences Grant Wiggins talks about):

how does one go from good to great? I think the difference is qualitative – The actions, behavior, and attitudes of great teachers differ considerably from those of good teachers; it’s not just a matter of degree. (That’s why I find almost all the well-known evaluation systems humdrum – they focus on mere goodness instead of being designed backward from greatness.)

Let me propose a set of distinctions – admittedly a bit glib – that may have value for sharpening our sense of what greatness is in teaching:

  • Great teachers are in the talent-finding and talent-development business.
  • Merely good teachers think they are mostly in the business of teaching stuff and helping students so that it gets learned.
  • Great teachers are aiming for the future: are these students better able to succeed on their own after me and without me?
  • Merely good teachers look mostly to the past: did they learn what I taught and did they do what I asked of them?

Sep 21, 2013

I am taking a course on Coursera on Foundations of Teaching for Learning.  In Week 3 of the course, there is a fascinating discussion on What is a good school? What is a good teacher? What is a good student? The thought provoking part was a series of questions starting with “How do you know? Whom do you ask”.  I thought one of the slides on “What is a good teacher” may be very relevant to this topic. If you are interested in teaching and learning, I highly recommend this course from Coursera.


Jul 16, 2013 Seven Characteristics of 21st Century Educators  is a mind map of Seven Characteristics of Innovative Educator

July 16,  2013 Eight characteristics of 21st Century Teachers.

June 2  2012 The folks at Next Wave Multimedia were kind enough to create this presentation based on this post, using ComicsHead, a visualization and presentation tool.

4th Sep 2011 And then, I found this amazing blog post on the Technical Skills Required  of a 21st Century Educator via Teacher’s Learning Journal.

23rd March 2011 AOL Search Teacher’s Attributes


Some times your blog visitors and comments tell you more about the topic you write about. I am always curious about why people read certain entries and where they come from. One way to honor them and say I recognize you is to incorporate their insights and link to them. This is a way to say, I salute you. I am glad you came and made my post a bit richer.  Whenever I have time, I would like to post these under the Updates section of my blog posts.

Multiplying the Multipliers

Reading Amund Tveit’s Blog reminded me of Doug’s ABC model of capability improvement.

Amund talks about the importance of software and a few ideas on how to multiply the multipliers.

the only point I want to make is that software is extremely important :). And since software has a multiplicative effect that few other technologies can beat (e.g. 1 persons code can effect a large amount of users in a positive way), making software engineers more productive can have a massive impact on society

Teaching has a multiplier effect. So improving teaching is a one to many activity with huge impact since each teacher comes across many students and have deep influence. Good teachers are great at inspiring people. My love for Math came from my early teachers.

Bloggers are the new teachers. Highly Effective bloggers are thinkers, dreamers and passionate about sharing their ideas. They have a deep multiplier effect too.