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Curiosity shouldn’t ‘kill’ the cat…

Image of a cat peeking around the corner

‘Curiosity killed the cat’ is, for me, a continuing cause of crossness.

Five minutes with a group of 5 year olds will convince even the most traditionally-minded of adults that harnessing curiosity and the plethora of questions that it produces is central to efficient learning; suggesting that curiosity and active enquiry is dangerous would be disastrous as well as impractical. Arousing that level of curiosity and thirst for knowledge in a group of 15 year olds, on a Friday afternoon, is sometimes more difficult but it is at the heart of successful teaching. My Fourth Year Physics group know how hard I try… puzzles, questions and stories are powerful ways to draw pupils in to a new topic and motivate them to master it. In Physics, intriguing starter questions include: Why is the sky blue? How much does the sky weigh? Why is the sea salty? Why don’t the fish die when the sea gets struck by lightning? What would be different if the Moon didn’t exist? Facts might include the surprising discoveries that the population of Ireland is still much less than it was in 1840 before the potato famine or that there are far more atoms in a cup of water than there are cups of water in the oceans. (It is also interesting to wonder where all the water came from). More general questions might range from the challenging ‘Why is minus 2 times minus 3 plus 6?’ to the scientific ‘Why does nature bother with males and females?’ and the philosophical ‘Your experience of the real world is a figment of your imagination. Can you be certain this statement is false?’. Curiosity keeps us from settling into familiar patterns of thought and ensures that we continue to learn throughout our lives.

Returning to the supposed causes of feline fatality, a few clicks (via Google, a great boon to the curious) reveal that ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ is first found in the early twentieth century, a corruption of a much earlier form initially recorded in Ben Johnson’s play Every Man in his Humour (1598) “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care’ll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman.” Shakespeare incorporated the phrase into his play Much Ado about Nothing published the following year. “What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.” This form was still in use in 1898 when it was defined in Brewster’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as “Care killed the Cat. It is said that a cat has nine lives, but care would wear them all out.” Care, in all these quotes, means worry. I have no explanation for the substitution of curiosity for worry but it is hard to avoid the thought that Edwardian school teachers (or parents) found it a useful way of stopping the seemingly unending and sometimes wearying flow of questions from their youthful charges.

Unfortunately, care seems much more likely to result in intellectual fatality than curiosity; worry about getting the ‘wrong’ answer, either in classroom questioning or written test, stifles imagination and inhibits the pursuit of alternative possibilities. Even in my own subject of Physics, often unfairly characterised as a subject where all the ‘right’ answers are in the text book having been discovered some centuries previously, imagination, active investigation and logical thinking are the true skills needed for success and inculcated through the free exercise of curiosity. I make regular forays into lessons at SGS and often discover environments that promote curiosity rather than care; students giving voice to their own enthusiasms and creativity and showing respect for each other’s views even when they disagree, complemented by teachers who know how to ask the right question at the right moment.

Johnson’s correct ‘Care killed the cat’ is, however, a constant challenge to complacency.