Curiosity in a High School Classroom


Courtney Couvreur is a Math Teacher at Oakland International High School, which serves English language learners from around the world. During her year as a teacher fellow with Agency by Design Oakland, Courtney focused on the inquiry question: What can encourage curiosity in older teenagers? Her inquiry focused on this question, and came from years of teaching statistics which has allowed her to observe how her lessons succeeded or failed based on whether she could get students invested in pursuing the answer to a question. Through this inquiry, Courtney identified seven effective strategies for promoting curiosity in newcomer students. 



I teach at Oakland International High School, where I’ve taught for nine years. The school is incredibly special. All 400 students are newcomer immigrants from around the world learning English together as they matriculate through high school toward graduation. Over the past few years, the population has shifted. A greater proportion of students have limited or interrupted formal education, meaning that they have missed years of elementary or middle school because of conditions in their native countries, ranging from the cost of schooling to civil war. This change has meant that I, like all OIHS teachers, could no longer afford to assume that most students had a passing familiarity with my subject area.

I have been teaching probability and statistics to this students during their senior year for eight years. Each year, like all excellent teachers, I create and adjust curriculum to meet the needs of a new group of students, reflecting on the most effective strategies and resources from the previous year. Over time, I realized that I couldn’t only train students in the techniques of statistics, but that I had to provide experiences that encouraged them to recognize the value of observation, measurement, data analysis, and the results of a careful study. And to care about the results, one has to care about the question.

SLIFE Challenges: Skills, Culture, Trauma

The most obvious challenges faced by SLIFE students are language and basic skills. Over a quarter of new students at OIHS have missed so much schooling that they struggle to subtract two-digit numbers without a calculator. Every year, one or two new students learns their first alphabet ever in ninth grade. Some students report class sizes of over 100 in their native countries or being prohibited from entering school so that they could start working as young as seven years old.

Another obvious challenge is learning curve for adapting to a new culture. Students who grew up in sex-segregated schools have to learn to work with students of either sex. Students who could bribe the teachers in their country have to learn to pass on their own. All students have to figure out why Americans love pizza so much, or that being “on time” really means to be at least five minutes early, or try to wrap their head around being discriminated against for aspects of themselves that they never even noticed before, such as their skin, their accent, their hijab, or hand gestures. The shift is enormous and can be very unsettling.

The final challenge I would like to describe are the emotional challenges, which cannot be underestimated in their role. I like to say that all OIHS students are missing a piece of their heart, but what I mean is that all SLIFEs have experienced trauma, defined as a deeply distressing experience. At the minimum, each student has a whole context they have left behind: family members, friendships, familiar places and foods, religious organizations, and a sense of belonging. All students are plunged into the cold water of being a low-income, immigrant of color in Oakland. Many live with family friends distant relatives, or perfect strangers, without the support of the loved ones closest to them.  The radical change in context is traumatic in itself, but many students carry even greater burdens of physical or sexual abuse/assault, neglect, near-death experiences, or witnessing extreme acts of violence. Students with such experiences can exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, including hypervigilance (always being “on the lookout” for threats), reliving the experience, depression, anxiety, low self-worth, or reckless behavior.

Together, this means that OIHS teachers must strive to develop strong, trusting relationships with students while designing lessons where all students can employ their skills and assets. SLIFE students must be equally valued as non-SLIFE students, which requires that teachers create curriculum which interrupts the idea that any students are “not smart.” I have to develop a curriculum which builds students’ academic skills (content objectives, language objectives, organizational/study skills), the confidence to make and learn from mistakes, and also internalize the essence of the target content.  On top of that, teachers’ success depends equally on their ability to honor older teenagers already-complex desire to be respected as emerging adults.

Why Science in a Math Class?

During fall semester, I model curiosity and evidence-based thinking by beginning each unit with a question that we answer together. In the fall, our questions are How can we use measurement and fractions to write recipes for our favorite foods? and What are randomness and chance? How can we identify which processes are random?  These questions arose from conversations I’ve had over the years, most memorably with two eleventh graders - my incoming students - expressed some beliefs that shocked me. They had heard a prophecy that a huge earthquake would cause California to break away from the US mainland, and that this would happen the very next day. They weren’t able to independently dismiss this baseless claim, nor were they able to cite any evidence that convinced them, other than they had seen it on the internet. Our conversation continued, and they told me about their exciting new hobby of fast highway driving and how I shouldn’t caution them against it, because they “have control [of the car]” and that therefore it wasn’t dangerous. I pointed out the contradiction: they were so afraid suffering from an event both very unlikely and completely out of their control but were gambling with life-threatening risks that were completely avoidable and much more likely to be fatal than an earthquake.  

I kept that conversation in the forefront of my planning for the following year, recognizing that the value of everything else that I would teach rested on the idea that students recognize the role probability plays in their lives, and that it can run counter to one’s intuitions or fears. These boys were still allowing their fears to guide their actions, and it could literally save their lives to see themselves as part of a larger population, and that their decisions could tip the odds toward or against their best interests. I also realized that these boys were not alone - most of my students would need to see probability as giving them more information and agency in their own lives in order to see the value of studying it.   

I started the year with ideas dear to every teenager: what is fairness? How do we know when something is random? I found that many students believed that fairness was achieved only when they got what they wanted, and that randomness had been synonymized with surprising. I knew that I had to back the statistics truck way, way up before jumping into calculations and interpretations. Otherwise, no lesson could be effective, since even the barest of facts would be up for negotiation. Facts had to be created from scratch in my class. There could be no assumptions - I had to model scientific thinking and provide scientific experiences starting with a question, carefully gathering evidence, interpreting that evidence, and asking more questions. That way, when students calculated an outcome’s probability at 85%, the number could really mean that something was quite likely to happen, much more so than an outcome with at 10% chance.   

Couldn’t You Teach More Statistics If You Didn’t Do So Many Activities?

The short answer is yes, I could have taught more data analysis techniques - boxplots, outliers, standard deviation, quartiles - if I hadn’t used so much time on in-class experiences. And in fact, I tried to make this work for years. However, I ran into the same stumbling block year after year: many students simply rejected my claims that X percent of teenagers would get HPV or that the government could possibly reliable data about how many American adults smoke tobacco. The rejection was out of hand, not based on evidence or rationality, but simply a dismissal. And who could blame them? Students needed to do their own science in order to believe in it, and many of them simply hadn’t had the opportunity.

Furthermore, I hesitate to define statistics so narrowly as to limit it to data analysis, particularly in an introductory course. I give students a clear definition of science (the careful process humans use to understand the natural world) and of statistics (the math used to do science). I tell them that in the scope of the class, science will only cover what can be directly observed, and therefore will not make conclusions related to morality, religious belief, or beauty, all of which we categorize as subjective and up for debate. Doing so provides clear (if perhaps too simple) parameters in which to develop their observational and interpretive skills, which they will then apply to broader and broader contexts of their choosing, thus gradually causing them to identify as scientists.

The variety, minimal overlap, and often the narrowness of my students’ experiences meant that  I couldn’t use those experiences as the foundation for any lesson. I had to use class time to create common experiences to serve as the factual, indisputable basis for any learning.

Science in the Classroom

On the first day of class this semester, I wanted to pique students’ interest and leave them wondering. I needed a compelling first step. However, I also needed something that every single student could engage in, regardless of skill level. Any student whom I couldn’t engage on day one would be at a disadvantage for the rest of the semester. 

My go-to strategy is to generate a new experience that all students share, or occasionally to refer to a previous common experience, such the teachers they shared the previous year. Still, this was not uniformly compelling, and was least compelling for my students most resistant to trying new skills (students with trauma, interrupted education, IEPs, limited English skills, or a combination). How could I reach these students?

I thought back to the months before, when students saw a rock with embedded shells on my desk, which I use as a paperweight. They asked, “Ms. Courtney, how did you make this?” and often were shocked that I had simply found it on a beach in Santa Cruz.  Once a student knew that I hadn’t made it, these same students became endless founts of questions: How did it get this way? Did someone make it? What were those white marks? Where they shells? How did they get inside the rock?  When did the shells become part of the rock? I realized that nature was compelling to almost all students, and natural artefacts could be the source of some common experiences. This led to two new parts of my class: the Question Contest and the Curiosity Corner.

What is a Question Contest?

The Question Contest has its roots in my reflections about the Agency by Design thinking routines of See, Think, Wonder and Parts, Purposes, and Complexities. I had used these routines several times in the past, but I realized that the part I found most useful was that each routine pushed students to generate questions. I wanted to make it possible for even hesitant learners to “be a scientist,” and to do so I decided to boil down the routines to the part I found most valuable: low-stakes question generation.  

I gathered a few mostly-familiar natural objects: a pinecone, a sand dollar, the shell-embedded rock, a quartz geode, a large cross-section of a colorful stone, a bivalve shell, a small animal vertebrate bone, and a spider plant clipping. I made sure that the objects were natural (not man-made), tangible (not an image, not in a case), complex (there is more than is immediately visible), diverse (so it would be likely that all students had seen some of them but no students had expertise in all of them), and replaceable (so that I could focus on their learning rather than preserving the artefact).


Students worked in groups of two or three to generate as many questions about one object at time. They were timed at five minutes per object, during which time I circulated to encourage students to add even more questions.  After the time went off (perhaps about five minutes), students passed their artefact to a new table group and started asking questions again. During their exploration, I resisted the urge to answer most questions, as the goal wasn’t to understand pinecones or bivalve shells deeply. The goal was to practice generating questions, so that their brains would be primed to learn how to pursue their own evidence.

For some adults as well as students, the idea of a “contest” suggests a prize. In this instance, the joy of asking questions with your friends was the prize. I did not declare a winner, but I did review and share several questions with the class, in order to communicate respect and assign value to students’ curiosity.

When I looked back on my decision to eliminate the “See, Think” from “See, Think, Wonder,” I found that I didn’t have to ask them to record observations in order for them to look closely. They looked closely and considered purpose as a part of asking questions. If I were to do this activity again or with students with less English, I would consider using question stems that might lead to observable answers (such as “Where are ___ found in nature?”, “How many ___ are there?” or “What lives inside this?”) as opposed to questions that exceed the bounds of description itself (“Where did you buy this?” “Did a machine make this?” “How much money is this worth?”). As it was, it served primarily as a formative assessment of the type of questions students tended to ask without additional training, and served as the jumping off point for some students to see nature in a new way, and for others to value their curiosity.

Curiosity Corner


After the question contest, I found that students weren’t finished asking questions about the objects I had put in front of them. They wanted to keep looking and wondering. So, I set aside a part of my classroom that students could visit or borrow from to spend time with the objects. I added an inexpensive, hand-held microscope (seen in this picture) and found that students couldn’t resist looking closely and asking more questions. Furthermore, I noted that students with the most difficulty paying attention to my lessons (due to a variety of reasons, including high energy, visual/auditory processing disorders, attention deficit issues, autism, or severe trauma) tended to reach for an artefact when needed stimulation. I would see students using the microscope to look closely at their own skin, or excitedly pointing out the fibers visible in their paper, or shaking the sand out from a sand dollar. I would be lecturing to a mostly-present class and realize that the student with his head down in the back was actually looking at a pinecone he had borrowed from me. I hope I never forget seeing a struggling student (who was supposed to working on a laptop) instead use the microscope to observe the pixels that created different colors on his screen. Without realizing it, I had given myself and my students a gift: I found a way for them to give themselves a break from the strain of content and language objectives while still practicing the cognitive skills at the heart of the content.  What would school be like, if every student had access to artefacts and primary source materials, with which they could interact on their own time to create ongoing inquiry that they really owned?

Measurements and Results

Anecdotes and Quotes

Since my inquiry focused on a shift of disposition toward curiosity, I sought to measure changes in students’ habits and ways of learning in class. I found found that this was best measured through informal observations and interviews, rather than the various assessments I used to measure content knowledge. A variety of quotes taken from class discussions, interviews, and observing students at work serve as evidence that students became more curious over the course of my inquiry. Here are a selection of those quotes.


Curiosity Survey

At the mid-semester point, I designed and administered this survey about curiosity to assess to measure students’ opinions about curiosity and reflects on their own curiosity. I was excited to find that the majority of students (87%) reported that their curiosity increased over the course of the year, I was surprised to find that a the percentage of students who thought that “it is important to be curious” was smaller (63%).  Several of the graphs of the data can be found in this document: Curiosity Survey Graphs.


Upon closer inspection of the data, I realized that I was more successful in getting students to identify as curious than I was in encouraging curiosity as a value. Out of all of the students whose curiosity increased, only 60% believed that it was a valuable disposition, with 40% reporting that they disagree that “curiosity is important.”

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Senior Census

The strongest evidence in a shift toward asking questions came right at the end of the year, during students’ Senior Census project. Students’ task was to analyze the data (Senior Census Data) that we collected in our unit about questionnaires and survey design. The questionnaires were compilations of student-generated questions and demographic questions about students’ sex, language, and native country/region. Out of 75 seniors, over 60 took the survey, which is a sufficiently large sample to be confident that it was representative.

First, students were supposed to choose one variable (a question from the survey) and explain the results in detail. Then, students were supposed to ask a question about how two of the variables could relate. Here are a few examples, all of which can be read in this folder:

  • Marisol wondered about sex disproportionalities in experiences being sent to the office.

  • Douglas looked for a connection between skipping class and tardiness.

  • Sara identified a discrepancy between males’ and females’ post-high school plans.

  • Alejandro examined students’ work hours and considers how sex could play a role in the decision to work during high school.

As I read students’ Senior Census reports, I found myself impressed with the quality of their inquiry. Students were able to formulate questions about data and analyze it appropriately in order to seek answers. Each of the four students whose work is linked here identified a real issue that affects their community - pressure to work, truancy to school, disciplinary action, and post-secondary education - and came to meaningful conclusions. An additional compliment is owed to Sara, whose work was read, cited, and shared by a group of her peers to draw school staff’s attention to a problematic sex disparity.

What Did I Learn?

During my inquiry, I learned nothing and everything about being a teacher. I learned the same lesson that excellent teachers have known for generations: all kids are not only capable of learning, but they want to. Our job is to remove barriers and provide support for their own inquiry. As a teacher, I have the greatest impact when I can find ways to set up situations where adults are not the gatekeepers of knowledge, but the facilitators of students’ exploration. I say that this lesson is “nothing” because it is already commonly known. I didn’t break any new ground.

However, I also learned that the very same lesson is “everything” in teaching because of the incredible challenge of holding true to this understanding. In the face of what appears to be evidence that some students “can’t” learn or “don’t want to” learn, it takes incredible strength to believe that all students have a spark inside. What looks like a lack of motivation or resistance or defiance is actually evidence of other psychological phenomenon, such as low self-esteem, anxiety, difficulty trusting new adults, fear of making mistakes or status-seeking. I learned that by finding this spark and nurturing it, teachers can encourage any student to pursue a lifelong, inborn love of learning.


In 2017-18, Courtney Couvreur was an Agency by Design Oakland fellow and a Math Teacher at Oakland International High School