Last week, I read about an experiment that paired young students with educational robots. The research concluded that these children learned best with robots that made mistakes relative to those robots that gave the right answers.
While it’s no news to say that we learn when we teach, the article brought to mind a sense that, in many high school classrooms, teachers have a hard time saying ‘I don’t know’. I think it’s a holdover characteristic of 20th century schools, where teachers were seen as experts and keepers of information. Standing in front of class and saying ‘I don’t know’ seemed a dangerous thing to do. A teacher’s expertise was their ground for authority. Not knowing brought into question the legitimacy of that teacher in charge.
To my way of thinking, a 21st century high school teacher should try to say ‘I don’t know’ as much as possible. Today, with information readily available to students, the chance to gather data, synthesis sources, and think critically about what’s out there is a far more valuable experience than asking teacher for the answer. Besides, it’s all but impossible to be an expert today. Plurality of perspectives and an easily accessible body of research makes it all but impossible to have all the information on hand. In my experience, finding the confidence to tell students ‘I don’t know’ is enabling, because it allows me to shift away from my position as sage on the stage toward mentorship and modeling effective learning behaviours.
There’s no denying that saying ‘I don’t know’ is scary. Especially for teachers. The prescriptive approach to learning, using textbooks and tests and predetermined course packs is what most of us experienced as students. And the incentives from most administrators, for reporting and curriculum coverage, are to lead students through a program where teachers have all the answers. But is that what’s best for students, or is it what helps those of us ‘in charge’ feel secure?
In my experience, some of my students are flustered when I tell them ‘I don’t know’. They prefer me to behave as an authority with the answers they seek. Being confronted by uncertainty and the prospect that there are more questions than answers is an uncomfortable space to confront.
Outside of the classroom, I work with a homeschool learner. A few days ago, I helped him develop a project around learning to divide. We were using Fraction Blocks, and he assembled the blocks in patterns that he seemed quite pleased with. He wanted to share his efforts with his mom, but she was in the backyard watching a couple of toddlers and unable to leave her post. I offered to hold her position while she went to check on her son’s presentation, and found myself in the company of two 2 year-old boys, one with a hose in his hand and the other riding around in a pushcart buggy. My attention went to the water coming from the hose, and how it was soaking the boy’s shoes, and then onto the parked car, and into the garden. The boy seemed unconcerned, and his amazement went to the ways the water pooled in places, and how colours changed when wet, and who else knows what was going on inside there. My urge was to keep him safe, and wondered if he had a change of clothes, and if the garden was in danger of too much water, and a range of other impulses that inclined me to curb his abandonment. After all, I was the one in charge.
A few moments later, mom returned, with a quick look to the toddlers, and began to chat with me about her son’s efforts and her surprise with what he had done. We invited the boy into our conversation, and the three of us talked about the nature of division and what we had learned that day. I was amazed with the boy’s simple description of division as moving things into groups of equal sizes. It seemed he had developed an insight of genuine value. I was equally amazed by the mom’s ease and disregard as the toddler soaked himself as we chatted. I wondered if I too was developing an insight of genuine value.