Sublime, curious and distracted – challenging conceptions of learning

Sublime and curious

Tyson E. Lewis in ‘The Dude Abides, or Why Curiosity Is Important for Education Today’, looks at the idea of curiosity from a pedagogical perspective. He sets curiosity in stark contrast to widely held beliefs about education where blind faith in truth and certainty keep the world simple and people happy. He refers to the influence of philosophers such as Augustine and Heidegger who warn that, without that clarity, we are prone to anarchy and void of definite structures we can follow.

Curiosity, then, is indulgent and disruptive. It is divergent and sensual; a matter of observation, impulse and distraction. What role can it have pedagogically, he asks.

Curiosity in #activelearning, as a matter of distraction, impulse, and anarchic (self-determined, intrinsically motivated inquisition?) should not be strange to pedagogues. Curiosity is a key word when understanding motivation and one dimension to a mantra I find myself using when I talk about active learning: “engagement first”. The academic’s challenge is to make each learner curious. It is the opposite of giving way to extrinsic motivational factors, especially giving way to a culture which promotes mark-driven engagement. Curiosity is the carrot to the stick of summative assessment.

I am not sure that distraction does define curiosity. I think positive distraction could be more helpful. Another word that springs to mind for me, while not a synonym as such, is ‘intrigue’ – pedagogically, curiosity is a matter of positive, formative distraction as a response to intriguing conundrums, problems and scenarios. That begins to sound like something we can work with intentionally.

Lewis, including in the chapter’s title, refers to ‘abiding’ – perhaps understood as aimless, unstructured and wandering. Wandering is another theme that appears regularly in my writing, being an important expression of openness evident in psychogeography in which the subject allows themselves to be immersed in a situation – especially a city: soaking it all up, and having no commitment to retaining anything. Virgina Woolf’s 1930 essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure is an example of this. Strikingly, the tale is inconsequential (although she can’t resist returning the protagonist to the certainty and charm of home at the end of the essay). The street is experienced as an environment without intended consequence and would seem to have little to do with education, but I would argue that it explains ideas such as immersive learning, reflection, and non-formal self-determined learning (heutagogy cf Hase & Kenyon, 2001). If you are unsure, think about the value of contemplation, or the value of other immersive experiences such as listening to music. These spaces are important to us in life, but they are frequently overlooked when discussing learning, and even more so when discussing teaching and assessment.

In academia, we do seem to value creativity and, in the same breath, critical thinking. This redirects us to the value of the interplay we can make between divergent and convergent thinking. And we do seem to value thinking about connectivity as educators. I ran a workshop on the Connected Classroom (again) yesterday, and my academic colleagues are usually one step ahead of me as we explore its many meanings and possibilities, frequently using words like experience, empathy, exploration and evolution to describe an essentially open-ended learning environment that allows for the curious. We get its value, but we are not explicit about curiosity as a design objective. Anyway, to what extent can you make other people curious? Some research argues you can’t (Zurn & Shankar, 2020) and say this explains why some students never stop asking “Why?” while others determinedly seem to wait to be told what to think, with the only sign of curiosity being about whether this week’s topic will be on the assessment!

Openness takes us back to the idea of the sublime (previously discussed). A dangerous, wild and rare, but valuable, space for the learner to find.

In conclusion

Fostering curiosity would seem to be a matter of an active learning ‘engagement first’ strategy. It reflects a student-centred learning philosophy in which each learner learns how to trust their impulse, albeit with criticality. It seems to emerge as a matter of designing the learning environment as a place for creating conundrums to intrigue.

This may be more helpful than it may seem: creating a trustful space for intrigue, deviation, divergence, distraction and immersion feels realisable. The use of games, conundrums (problems that have no solution), and similar open-ended and risky pedagogic ventures, are legitimate and valuable ‘engagement first’ strategies that lead our students to follow their noses into deep challenges in which they discover, decide upon, and determine their learning and future selves.


Hase, S. & Kenyon, C. (2001). Moving from andragogy to heutagogy: implications for VET, AVETRA, Adelaide, March. Available at

Lewis, Tyson (2018). ‘‘The Dude Abides, or Why Curiosity Is Important for Education Today’. In: Perry Zurn & Arjun Shankar, Eds, (2020) Curiosity studies: a new ecology of knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.

Wolf, V. (1930). Street haunting: a London adventure. Online at:

Zurn,P. & Shankar, A., Eds, (2020) Curiosity studies: a new ecology of knowledge. University of Minnesota Press.


About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
This entry was posted in Active Learning, Learner Engagement, Learning Space and Place and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s