Observation and Permission: The Handmaidens of Curiosity? - RSA

Observation and Permission: The Handmaidens of Curiosity?

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  • Education
  • Social brain

The Power of Curiosity – some thoughts by Dennis Sherwood*

 There is no doubt, as highlighted in the RSA’s recent report The Power of Curiosity, that it is curiosity, not necessity, that is the mother of invention - or rather, innovation. I wonder, though, if curiosity has two handmaidens: observation and permission.

Curiosity begs a question – curious about what? To which I suggest the answer is “what I observe”, for curiosity is to ask questions about the world around me; in the first instance, to seek knowledge, and in the second, to stimulate my imagination about how what I see around me might be different  - from which creativity and innovation spring.

Curiosity is triggered by careful observation; and curiosity can bear its wonderful fruit of creativity only in a climate of permission.

I would argue that observation has a good track record as underpinning curiosity, and hence creativity and innovation: what was Darwin, for example, but arguably the greatest ever observer of the natural world, who not only observed, but also remembered, made connections, and perceived wonderful patterns? Dickens too, with his heritage as a perceptive journalist, observed his world, and used that observation as an inspiration for his characters and plots. More recently, David Hockney appeared on many broadcasts in connection with his exhibition at the Royal Academy. I lost count of the number of times he mentioned the word ‘observe’, from observing the colour of the road surfaces to the intricate arrangements of leaf, branch and trunk is his beloved East Yorkshire woodlands.

Curiosity about acquiring knowledge is, in general, regarded as a ‘good thing’. But, regrettably, curiosity as a trigger to asking “how might this be different?”, so spurring creativity and innovation, can get you into big trouble. Curiosity may indeed have killed the proverbial cat; but it’s lack of permission that kills ideas.

Take a young would-be Hockney, for example, who might at this moment observe a touch of purple in a road, and paint the tarmac in her picture a vivid purple. And suppose that a teacher comes along and says, “Roads aren’t purple, they’re grey. Got it, grey!”. The pupil learns, very fast, that roads are grey, not purple. And learns even faster that success in the educational system is to regurgitate what-the-teacher-has-thought-of-first, rather than to follow her curiosity, to imagine how what-I-observe-about-me might be different, to create.

So I applaud the recognition of curiosity as being central to innovation, but curiosity alone is not enough. Curiosity is triggered by careful observation; and curiosity can bear its wonderful fruit of creativity only in a climate of permission. The report argues strongly that schools should encourage children to be curious. May I also urge that schools (and families, and society) should also encourage – and indeed teach – children how to observe, and how to express that observation in all sorts of different ways, from art to writing, from music to mathematical formulae, from clearly articulated speech to dance. And to do this all in a climate of permission, so that the sense of wonder, excitement and huge creativity that we all see in a 6 year-old is not crushed by the time that child becomes 16.


*Dennis Sherwood is the MD of Silver Bullet, a consultancy specialising in organisational creativity and innovation.


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  • The part about permission is so important. I prefer to think of it as "safety." You give someone the space to be a fool and they will show you the way to truth.