Stuart Firestein’s book Ignorance: How It Drives Science offers a valuable perspective to educators. Through fascinating examples of scientific experiments and discoveries, he makes a powerful case for the central role uncertainty plays in driving science. “Want to be on the cutting edge?” he writes, “Well, it’s all, or mostly, ignorance out there. Forget the answers. Work on the questions.”
Great scientific discoveries often emerge from experiments that “fail.” While I am not a scientist, I have experienced the same phenomenon again and again in teaching students and teachers. We approach the lesson with a hypothesis about what strategies will engage our students in learning what we aim to teach. Sometimes the way students respond proves our hypothesis correct, and we ride the exciting wave of helping others learn.
Other times, our approach fails. Students struggle. They disengage or participate in unexpected ways. This creates what I call a “sweat-it-out moment” for the teacher, especially when we are teaching as colleagues or supervisors observe. The ego hates it. It’s much easier to teach and feel like a good teacher when kids get it.
Skip the “good” or “bad” self-judgment of a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2006) and move on. When kids don’t get it, that’s the goldmine moment for our deep learning.
My entire career is built upon the questions that emerge for me every time a student struggles in a lesson I teach. When students surprise me, I learn. When something I expect to work doesn’t, I learn.
It’s powerful not to have the answer. When you don’t, notice the questions that emerge. Follow them. Questions are motivators for inquiry and innovation. Grab onto a question that matters to you, your students, and our world: a question that begs to be answered.
To foster dynamic professional learning and innovation, we must create an environment among educators that cherishes questions. This means accepting imperfection and failure as central to learning.
I don’t advocate a laissez-faire, “let’s all just fail” approach to teaching. On the contrary, I have exceptionally high expectations for what education should realize for kids.
When a school’s culture doesn’t cherish uncertainty and unknowing, a tragedy results: people fear data. Conversations in professional learning communities skirt the most important questions. People avoid anything that might disrupt the status quo.
You can’t shake up this mindset with a mandate. The only way to shift it is through trust and courageous leadership. We model the mindset by living it, by being learners ourselves. Pursue questions that matter, questions to which you don’t have all the answers. Pay attention to the data, especially when it isn’t what you expect–or want–to see. Take risks, and when you fail, notice the new insights and questions that emerge.
Let’s embrace uncertainty and questions together, as courageous learners, collaborating to expand the edge of possibility in schools.
What questions drive you?
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Firestein, S. (2012). Ignorance: How it Drives Science. New York: Oxford University Press.
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