Still Curious is on mid-season break, returning in August.

It's the very first episode! Usually there will be guests but for the first one it's just Danu explaining what the podcast is about, what he's doing it and what he hopes to achieve with it.

About the Host: Danu has been thinking hard about education, technology and society for 30 years. His ambition is to start a company that offers holistic learner-first experiences that set the soul on fire. He is based in Auckland, NZ and is currently working as a consultant on research information systems, academic performance and games for education. [Danu's LinkedIn]

In this episode: Why curiosity matters. The connection between curiosity and learning. Why self-taught learners are awesome but also have a difficult time. Teaching copy/paste to someone who has never used a computer. Why Danu cringes when he hears the phrase 'learning outcomes'.

Recorded 4 September 2021

Music: Kleptotonic Swing by Tri-Tachyon (Used under CC-BY-NC license)

Danu Poyner:

Hi, my name is Danu Poyner. And you're listening to this introductory episode of my new podcast, still curious, this is my first time doing a podcast. So you can probably expect it to be pretty rough around the edges in the beginning, until I start to get the hang of it. I'm guessing you probably won't mind that since if you're listening to this, we almost certainly know each other already. Because who on earth would be listening to the tentative introductory episode of a random unknown podcast by some random guy otherwise? So if you are listening, thank you, you could be doing other things. So it means a lot to me that you're spending this time with me instead, or more likely, as well. Since let's be honest, you're probably multitasking right now. So this is going to be mostly an interview style podcast with a rolling series of guests. But I thought I'd take this first episode to explain what I'm trying to do with the podcast, why it's important to me and what I'm hoping it will be the you don't care about that. And you just want to get straight to the good stuff. That's fine, feel free to just skip over to one of the other episodes. Otherwise, I'll see you on the other side of the music break for the very first episode of The still curious podcast. So this is a podcast about curiosity and learning. I'm calling it still curious for two reasons. The first is that I couldn't find any other podcast called that which is always important. But the second is that I think it captures something important about the people I'm hoping to connect with through this podcast. Curiosity is a precious and fragile thing. We're all born with it. But most of us have it beaten out of us or worn away through life struggles, or out of a need to keep ourselves safe in an uncaring world. I'm in my late 30s. Now it pains me to say to overgeneralize, I guess you could say I'm part of a generation that grew up amid a period of great optimism with the belief that we could be anything we wanted. I think it's fairly safe to say most of us have lowered our eyes a little bit since then. And now we talk about doing what we can for the people closest to us, and sometimes just getting through the day. And I think my generation is hardly alone in that experience, either. A friend of mine used to say, in the battle between you and the world bet on the world. So I think in that context, to recognize yourself as someone who is still curious to have intact not only your curiosity, but a certain generosity of spirit that goes with that is something of an achievement in itself. I know for myself that it's pretty much how I check in on the state of my soul. If that fire is still burning, even if it flickers a bit sometimes, then that's usually enough to get me up off the mat and into whatever's next. So it's partly the nature of that curiosity that I want to explore with my guests on this podcast? What does it mean to be curious, and to still have your curiosity intact? What paths have you taken or not taken in life because of that? What has your curiosity brought you? In other words, and what has it cost you? It's been my experience that the world by and large, doesn't want people to be curious. There are many extreme examples of that, of course, and you can project your own favorite ones onto that Canvas. Now while I'm talking, but even the most extreme evils tend to have something very, very ordinary at the core of them. So I would say on reflection, the main problem with being curious is that it's inconvenient for other people in various ways. Curiosity is unsettling in the literal sense. It takes things that are settled, it picks them up and shakes them about and then asks, What's that rattling sound? curiosity wants to know why things are the way they are. And in asking questions, it raises the possibility that there might be alternatives to the way things are, and more worryingly that some of those alternatives might be preferable to the way things are right now. And of course, a lot of the inconvenience of curiosity arises from the fact that people, for various reasons have a lot invested in the way things already are. I think it might have been Herbert Marcuse, who said, the greatest obstacle to change is the way things already are. So That brings us to the other half of what this podcast is about, which is education. curiosity and education have an uneasy relationship. There's a quote attributed to Mark Twain that says, I never let schooling interfere with my education. And that quote has always resonated with me. If we smile when we hear it, it's because we recognize that while we're used to thinking of school and education as closely related, in practice, they have different objectives that are often at odds with each other. And my own experience with curiosity, school, and education has sent me on what is so far at 30 year Odyssey to try and really understand what's going on there. That search has taken me to some pretty wild places, I'm sure some of those stories will come out in various conversations on the podcast. But one of the main threads running through my journey is to really understand the nature of authority and legitimacy, and especially the implications of that, for how we do education as a society. So Steve Jobs, said something interesting about this. He says, In school, I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before. And I did not like it. And they really almost got me, they came close to really beating any curiosity out of me. So that's pretty powerful image of a young Steve Jobs, where curiosity is a kind of defiance. And in this case, that defiance is core to a sense of identity. So I think we can say curiosity, something deeply personal. And for many people, it's also deeply bound up with complicated experiences to do with authority care, and even belonging. So I have lots of ideas about this, of course, but the point is not to pontificate about it. I'm much more interested in asking good questions than in packaging up settled answers. So I want to share two examples now that I think raise the kinds of good questions about curiosity and learning that I hope will drive the conversations on this podcast. The first example is about self taught learners. So the way self taught people go about learning and teaching themselves, is actually quite a helpful way to think about some of the paradoxes of education, as we're used to thinking about it, and the way we encounter learning as a system. This is because people who are truly self taught are almost by definition, unable to get what they want from the existing range of educational options they have available. They're self taught, because they haven't found a system that can accommodate them. So human needs are infinite. So they'll never be systems to accommodate everyone. That's a tragedy, of course, but also an opportunity. self taught people are interesting, because instead of simply accepting what's on offer, and making the best of it, and moving on, there, you go a step further and take matters into their own hands. To be self taught, you need to be curious, of course, but also discerning, resourceful, and highly creative about how to apply that curiosity, discernment, and resourcefulness. self taught people also face a number of challenges. Here are some I can think of, perhaps they'll resonate with you. And maybe if you are a self taught person, you can think of others. So firstly, if you're a self taught person, there isn't a place to go to learn and develop that feels like it's designed for you. Other people have that famous school, they can aspire to go to that Academy where they want to train that well signposted career path to move along, or that well known community they can go to hang out, meet people and pick things up. Instead of you're a self taught person, you have to pick and Scrabble your way around panning for gold and watching for occasional nuggets of insight and people of interest. And because your hard won knowledge is by necessity, cobbled together from all the useful bits and pieces you've found over the years, you probably feel like you're missing out some of that knowledge that the formally trained people seem to have. And in fact, you are missing some stuff, which probably slows you down sometimes when interacting with others, especially when you lack that important insider language terms and concepts that would make their world more readable to you. Because there's no map, instruction manual or indeed anyone to ask. There's often no obvious path to getting better, or unlocking the next level of learning. This means sometimes you're in for long stretches of feeling stuck losing interest in Maybe flirting with giving up until you find that unexpected insight or throwaway comment someone makes that suddenly lights the way forward. Though there's no shortage of people who are knowledgeable about an interested in your thing, you probably find it hard for some reason to find the right kinds of people to vibe with. And the people you do find, okay. But possibly you feel like they're slow sometimes or missing something important. And so, after a period of initial excitement at finding someone, you can often quietly disengage and then move on. As well, it's hard to know how good you really are at your thing as a self taught person. Sometimes you feel like you're the only one who really gets it. And other times you feel way out of your depth and intimidated or just unsure. Because there's no independent or indeed authoritative way to benchmark how you're doing. You never really know where you stand. And therefore even if you're fortunate enough to be a naturally confident person, this is still likely to leave you with crippling doubt at times. And finally, if you've been plugging away for long enough, over time, you will have a master formidably impressive amount of knowledge, insight and understanding about your thing that couldn't have been earned any other way, then through your many false starts, tangents, dead ends, random experiences, unexpected treasures, touchstones, and the connections you've made between all of these things. So no doubt you enjoy being sought out for the wisdom and advice that you have about your thing, though, it probably doesn't happen as often as you'd like. But when that occasion does arise, you're likely to maybe turn a simple question or request into a torrent of insights and recommendations, shortcuts and suggestions that might leave the person who asked, feeling inspired, or humbled, amused, possibly overwhelmed, or even all of these at once. Maybe you've wondered at times about the possibility of finding a way to impart your hard won wisdom for a living. After all, when you look around, there really doesn't seem to be anyone who knows your thing as deeply or quiet in the way that you do. But although it's easier than ever before, to publish content and find an audience, maybe you've experimented with this at times, to the prospect of starting a business and marketing your way to sustainable revenue, and all of that apparatus, is probably nonetheless quite daunting. Given you're a resourceful, creative, discerning person and a fast learner, it's almost certainly going to be easier for you to earn a crust more easily and reliably doing some other things some other way, even if it's ultimately not as satisfying as what could have been. So I wonder how many truly powerful people end up taking that bargain. And how many soul fires are extinguished? Or never lit? Because of that? Too many? I think, whatever the number, what if there was something we could do about all of this? What if more self taught learners had access to the ideal learning platform for their needs? And what if more self taught experts had the opportunity to make a living by sharing their expertise with their ideal learners? Maybe then there could be more soul igniting educational experiences for learners and old hands alike. We're trying to build a platform like that is really my larger ambition, and something I'm working towards. So partly, this podcast is also to help me think out loud about that, and have conversations with people who can help me figure out what it needs to be. So self taught learners are the first example. The second example is a story from my own experience about curiosity and care. So back in 2004 15 years ago, now I was doing freelance work as a technology tutor, teaching stay at home mums, retirees, Mum and Dad type small businesses, how to get the most out of their Apple computers. My very first client was a recently retired lady. Let's call her Jenny. Her name is not Jenny, let's call her Jenny, who had been an executive assistant for many years. She had been very confident and organized in her world, and now retired, she had said about getting involved in various local community groups and putting her secretarial skills to good use. However, one of these community groups had told Jenny that they didn't want her as their secretary, if she couldn't use a computer. So this has put a big dent in Jenny's confidence. She had managed just fine for decades with a diary and a typewriter, and her results had been excellent. She known about computers, of course, but it had never seem necessary to her to make the switch. But now a bunch of old biddies, her words, were kicking her out of their club. Jenny had taken a few computer classes at the local library to get the basics. But she was bored. And she didn't really like the people. They were too old and slow. She said, she tried to get some help from various computer shops who hadn't been able to help her. But they had been happy to take her money for technical support. And Jenny had tried to explain that what she wanted wasn't technical support. It was someone to teach her. And so they sold her a for dummies book. And Jenny wasn't a dummy. For various reasons, this whole area was just something she'd never learned much about. And now suddenly she had to, she was trying to learn and asking for help. But no one could seem to understand what she was asking. It was intimidating for her and many people would have given up. I wonder who among us has not found ourselves in a situation like this at one time or another? So I asked Jenny, what she knew about the internet thinking there might be some good resources there that she could connect to. And she said, she said, I know you can ask jeeves. This is 2004. So ask jeeves had been dead for several years when he was cute. So changing tack, I asked Jenny to tell me more about what happened with the old biddies. And it turned out that the problem was Jenny had volunteered to type up the minutes from the club meeting. And the club president had intended to email that out to the members. So when Jenny turned up with type written minutes, and things got a bit awkward. So that actually gave us a goal for our first session, let's type up the minutes together. for both of us, what followed was a transformational experience. Have you ever tried to explain how to use Microsoft Word to someone who has never used a word processor, it really forces you to think hard about what the gap is between where they are and where you need them to be. And what would bridge that gap. So Jenny was driving the keyboard and mouse that was important. For a while, we kind of fumbled around and got variously embarrassed and impatient. But I resisted the urge to take over. Because this was most of all about Jenny's competence, so taking over would have ruined everything. But anyway, after a frustrating 40 minutes, she went to make us a cup of tea. And that actually gave me a few moments to think. While we had stopped typing, and we were just chatting over tea, I invited Jenny to think about the difference between a typewritten document and a word process document as being about the point at which you commit to what you're writing. On a typewriter, you're fully committed every time you press a key because making a mistake means going back or starting again, on a computer, you can always press Delete, or undo. And of course, you can change your mind and move things around on the page until you're happy with them. You can what she said, to explain it again. And she said Show me. So I typed a few sentences in showed her copy paste. And that's when Jenny sat very still just holding her cup of tea and I won't forget the way she looked at me. I never knew you could do that. She said quietly. If I'd known that I would have stopped using a typewriter years ago. And after that, there was really no stopping Jenny. I left her with a few instructions and said I'd be back next week. And we could go through the finished document together. And when I came back, not only had she finished it, she had formatted it nicely using headings and italics and even bullet lists. And I thought about what she said she told me more over another cup of tea, about commitment. She said I I never wanted to be a secretary. I wanted to travel the world and do photography. But back then we had to do what we had to do. And once I started doing secretarial work, I suppose I had fully committed if we'd had Microsoft Word back then who knows how my wife she could have turned out. So Jenny, quickly regained her poster secretary of the local community club needless to say, doing them monthly newsletter as well as their minutes. But her real passion was making photo books. She and her husband would go on these trips together as grey nomads, and take lots of photos and then edit these and turn them into a photo book, as well as making the slideshow and burning it to DVDs which she'd send to their son in the UK. And she said, he nearly fell off his chair the first time he got one of those photo books from me. Because she didn't tell him that they were doing any of that. So he had a lot of fun with that. But look, I saw Jenny, maybe 1012 times in total over a period of 18 months. So that's around 24 hours of my time overall. The last time I saw her, she had just bought a new iMac, a flat panel, one with the big screen, and she got a new digital SLR camera. And when the store had offered her technical support, she had politely declined. But I think about this story, often and I get a bit emotional each time. Because it's so simple. And it reminds me how easy it is to forget something really important about education, which is when you're doing it well. everybody learns, I learned so much from that encounter. So there's another fantastic quote from the psychologist Carl Jung, who says the meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances. If there's any reaction, both are transformed. And this is why I have such difficulty, I guess, with the idea of learning outcomes. Because if we're coming to learning from a place of curiosity, we don't know what the outcomes will be. And isn't that the point. So that seems like a good place to wrap things up for an introductory episode. I'm hoping that by having conversations with people about the role of curiosity in their lives, all of these ideas will mix into a big stew and who knows what will bubble up out of that, but I can't wait to find out. As you can probably tell by now I love a good quote. So I'll finish with one more courtesy of my favorite philosopher, Hannah Arendt. And she says, where certainty ends thinking begins. We've all been reminded lately that we live in uncertain times. I don't think we're going back to normal. So maybe this can be a moment where thinking begins, at least about the way we do education. Thank you for your time. I'm Danu Poyner. This has been the first episode of The still curious podcast