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A New Understanding of Our Confusion

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The people who are the best in the world specialize  at getting really good at the questions they don't know.When I was in college, studying and traveling abroad one summer, I started collecting many different ways to say, “I don’t know.” By the time I met my future wife, I charmed her by rattling through “I don’t know” in 28 different languages. I don’t know (Je ne sais pas) why I did it; it was a party trick that gave me excuses to talk to new and different people. And maybe all this means is that I can travel the world and be internationally ignorant – or at least communicate my international ignorance. It seems to me, however, that it’s the most useful and honest skill one could have: plop me down in Tanzania tomorrow and I will be able to answer any question or respond to any command or request with complete honesty. “Sijui,” I will say, and the locals will understand.

There is an important difference between ignorance and humility – at least I’m counting on there to be. Very recently, a colleague whom I highly respect gave me one of the greatest compliments I have ever received: he told me he appreciated my humility. I’m very proud of that compliment (though perhaps my being proud of my humility is ironic?). Humility is one of the qualities I value most as an educator and one of the most important dispositions we should be inculcating in our students. Humility often serves as a stepping stone to wisdom – not immediately, of course, and certainly not automatically. But when I’m humble about what I don’t know, I also care very much about wanting to know — and about understanding why I don’t. One of my favorite books from a couple of years ago is Chuck Klosterman’s But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. The book is both a deconstruction of current assumptions from the sciences, the arts, history, politics, and philosophy, as well as a demonstration of the author’s own possible wrongness about what he’s arguing. Klosterman writes, “We must start from the premise that—in all likelihood—we are already wrong. And not ‘wrong’ in the sense that we are examining questions and coming to incorrect conclusions, because most of our conclusions are reasoned and coherent. The problem is with the questions themselves.” The humble and wise individual will ask the best questions because she cares about the answers more than she cares about being right.

Humility goes hand-in-hand with a passion for learning. In a conversation about developing the KLS Math curriculum this summer with Dustin Pierce, our Middle and Upper School Math Specialist, he put it nicely: “I don’t know everything, but I know a lot.” I didn’t take that to be arrogant at all, particularly now that I know Dustin better and am fully convinced that when it comes both to the subject and the pedagogy of Math, Dustin does indeed know a lot. He’s smart and experienced, which makes him a very good Math teacher. But because of this, he knows enough to know that he doesn’t know everything – and this makes him a great Math teacher.

It’s invigorating to be at a school in which that’s true of all of our teachers and staff. After all, institutional humility is built into our lab school model: in order to be in continuous improvement, we must be honest with ourselves – and our stakeholders – about what’s not working. Re-imagining education does not merely spring from the fantastical whims of naive idealists, nor can it happen through stubborn dogmatism. If we’re really trying to get to the heart of how students best learn and how we can support lifelong learning and foster meaningful character outcomes in students, we need to be able to balance our expertise and knowledge with healthy doses of humility.

Humility is key to our growth as learners and our growth as an institution of learning. Years ago, when I was leading a workshop for teachers about these kinds of ideas, one of the teachers in the group shared with me a poem by Robert Graves. “This is exactly what you’re talking about, isn’t it?” she said. Here’s the poem:

In Broken Images
by Robert Graves

He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

From the institutional standpoint, “a new understanding of confusion” can hardly set at ease the minds of our parent stakeholders. So while that’s not enough, it is absolutely necessary as a first step toward asking the right kinds of questions: How do students learn? What kinds of citizens do we want to send out into the world? What can we do to make learning meaningful?

The challenge, however, is not just to aim for an understanding of our confusion about education itself but to help students aim for an understanding of the confusion in their own learning. It helps to have great teachers modeling humility, curiosity, and reflection. Because knowledge is easily accessible to students through their computers, the teacher’s job is no longer to provide that knowledge but to coach and mentor students through their own understanding of what that knowledge means and why it might be important. In an update to parents about what has been happening in class this term, John Lubushkin, our Humanities/ELA Content Specialist, recommended that parents not ask their children “What did you learn today?” but “What question did you ask today?” When we care more about asking the right questions than we do about merely accumulating information, we’re on the path to wisdom.

We grow as learners when we take the time to reflect not only on what we’ve learned but also on how we’ve learned it. Humility is central to the thoughtful reflection and analysis we seek to catalyze at KLS through our instructional design. Our students engage in collaborative Studio Projects each term, and the point of these projects is not simply to make students experts. The point is not merely the product they create at the end. The aim of these projects is to invite students to understand processes and reflect on their struggles and successes. Often there’s more learning for the student who messed up along the way, as we tend to learn more from renegotiating our understanding after we’ve failed in some way. That renegotiation paves the way for success. We learn to redirect our approach or reconceptualize the way we work to solve a problem. A student’s process of re-envisioning can be frustrating, and humility isn’t always comfortable for students to cultivate. But through the support of teachers and parents, students learn and grow as they reflect on their process of bouncing back from failure or navigating new and unknown territory they didn’t anticipate. Learning then becomes not only about what we do know, but about what we don’t. That not-knowing can make us uneasy. But it can be exhilarating, too.

“I like a universe that includes much that is unknown and, at the same time, much that is knowable. A universe in which everything is known would be static and dull. A universe that is unknowable is no fit place for a thinking being.” Carl Sagan wrote that at the end of his essay, Can We Know the Universe?: Reflections on a Grain of Salt. I like this mindset because it keeps alive the possibility of never-ending questions. Some will be answered, many won’t. But it’s the combination of the curiosity to know more and the humble acknowledgment of the unknown that makes asking these questions all the more enriching.


Questions for Students:

  • At what point in your learning have you been able to achieve a “new understanding of your confusion”?
  • How might humility in both your successes and your struggles help you grow as an individual?

Questions for Parents:

  • How are you modeling humility to your child?
  • When your child experiences struggles, how can you use these as opportunities to help build character?

Questions for Educators:

  • How comfortable are we as teachers admitting to students that we don’t know?
  • How might institutional humility help us grow and develop to better serve the needs of our student learners?

 

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