Theories about education don’t evolve; they erupt. Most people understand that childhood offers an irreplaceable opportunity to influence minds for a lifetime. Maybe that explains the furor surrounding the roll-out of the Common Core in communities across the US. While the trend toward rigid standards, uniform curriculum and increased formal instruction seems sound to some, to others it seems a travesty, a squandering of childhood’s most precious gifts: play, imagination and exploration. Included in this camp would surely be Marie Curie, if she were alive today to express a view.
In a book she wrote about her mother, Marie Curie’s youngest daughter, Eve, described Marie’s views on education. Eve explained that Marie dreaded sending her children into the sterile, confined atmosphere of a structured classroom. Marie regarded formal schooling as “hours of attendance”. Her philosophy was that children should be encouraged to find their talent through exploration. It was in this way that Irene, the older daughter, discovered an early interest in mathematics; and Eve, the younger daughter, learned through experimentation that she was fascinated with music.
Essential to the daily regimen of both Curie children was vigorous physical activity. Marie installed gym equipment at home and took the girls on camping trips. Together the family trekked through the countryside on extensive biking trips. “Formal” instruction was put off as long as possible. In its place, Marie devised a scheme with her colleagues at the Sorbonne.
The girls, and several other children, would be exposed to the finest minds, in a congenial atmosphere. Each day the children would spend hours with a professor from a specific discipline. The weeks would be passed in this way, with a casual rotation between specialties and a cheerful approach toward learning.
Eventually Marie’s daughters were obliged to go to formal classes, but not until this was absolutely necessary. Irene eventually earned a Doctor of Science degree and Eve earned two bachelor degrees, one in philosophy and one in music.
Irene went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1935 and later continued to do groundbreaking research in nuclear physics. Eve was for a time a concert pianist. She was also a journalist, diplomat and humanitarian.
Irene died in 1956, Eve in 2007. I would be hard to imagine two more accomplished women. Whether their mother’s approach to education enabled a lifetime of accomplishment, it would be hard to say. But their lives and achievements certainly make a good argument for those who believe that a a rigid curriculum may not be the path to a great mind.