What grabs you?
A meditation on different kinds of curiosities
When I started teaching math in NYC nine years ago, I visited a biology teacher’s high school class. She sat in a circle with students I also taught at another point in the day. She prompted them to ask whatever questions they had. Without much support, all 30 students had something to ask. Questions were usually connected to their own bodies and sometimes to something they’d heard before. Students did not want to end the discussion when the bell rang. She had to tell them to leave.
I reflected on my own math classroom. I saw those same students everyday and while they did ask me questions, it felt very different. They would ask me how to do a problem. They would implore me to show them how to do it so they could get the right answer. Patient students asked nicely. Impatient students would kick and scream. “Just tell me how to do it, Adam!”
This was definitely a group of students capable of curiosity. They demonstrated the ability to practice questioning, interest and care about something unknown in both classes. But, in each situation, the curiosities practiced were essentially different. The answers the biology teacher told her students were never satisfactory. Students continued to inquire and at each moment, exhibited heartfelt wonder. Whereas, in my class, a student question was motivated by frustration and anger. Students seemingly experience different kinds of curiosity. One we might call open-curious, the kind of curiosity motivated by an intrinsic desire to know; we might, then, call the other closed-curious, the kind of curiosity that ends as soon as the answer is found.
I think I can speak for many (math) teachers when I say that the deepest kind of learning happens for students when they problem solve for themselves, figure out a solution after many dead-ends, and can reflect on what to do better next time. And this only happens for students when they are open to it.
One reason students may resist feeling open-curious about math (or about anything) is a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset student insists, “I am not a math person.” Or, “I am not interested in studying math.” These are statements made by someone who will likely see each new assignment as “just something to get done”. This is a closed-curious response to learning.
And so in the last nine years of teaching, I have tried to disrupt the closed-curious student’s narrative by designing situations in math class that foster open-curiosity. I worked to answer the question, “How might I design an experience that provokes everyone into a state of open-curiosity?”
The first (and probably most important) thing I did was to start practicing open-curiosity in and out of school. I work as a detective of my own story in which everything life has to offer is a clue. I reflect on times when I am not curious and try to figure out what prejudices might be keeping me in a fixed mindset. In my own life, I encourage the unexpected and embrace experiences that did not go as planned. In school, I actively maintain an open-mind to new ideas and ways-of-being. Public schools are spaces that must diligently strive to make everyone–teachers, students, support staff–feel comfortable to be themselves, feel vulnerable, and make mistakes. Without this goal, schools are fixed-mindset sinkholes. When I am stressed and anxious, I can easily interpret what someone might do to represent who that person might be. However, if I maintain an open-curious position about all things happening, I can work towards understanding and believing that all can grow and learn. I can pose questions. Investigate. Make new connections. Gain a deeper understanding of how the world works.
I try to plan for moments in class that require an open-curious mentality. For example, I use “How might we” questions and brainstorming as techniques to approach non-routine problems. I teach students about engineering and how service engineers might use design thinking as a problem solving framework. Then, we explore design thinking and practice it in different rapid design challenges.
Because of our shared experience, I am able to use “How might we” questions and brainstorming to launch new problems. In one lesson, I might prompt students to “Develop three open questions about the problem.” Followed by, “Choose the questions that interested you the most and answer them.” And on another day, we could address an issue in the classroom with a question like, “How might we support all students to meet deadlines?”
And as students grapple to meet my open-curious expectations, they begin to embody growth mindset traits that allow them to be curious about anything, treat everything as learnable, and make those brains get just a bit heavier. Of course, it is always important to conclude the open-curious experience with reflection on what just happened. I ask, “What did you learn today? What do you still wonder about?”
These strategies don’t change everything for everyone. Students still have fixed mindsets and return to closed-curious patterns of thought. But on days when my plans allow for the unexpected (divergent outcomes), closed students shift to an open-curious mode. And since I am practicing my own open-curious state of mind, everything that happens demands scrutiny, must be inspected, understood, and will lead to new questions and connections.