Open thread

Published by Lori Pickert on February 13, 2009 at 02:40 PM

The humility that facilitates learning may take the form of a simple open, questioning attitude. “One primary trouble with the American educational system is its concern with answers, as opposed to giving students questions,” says C. Roland Christensen, Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. Lecturer on education Catherine Krupnick points out that the capacity to admit one’s ignorance opens doors. “It’s being willing to acknowledge that you don’t know where the moon is on a given night, or how to demonstrate that the world is round,” she says. “And not minding that you don’t know. That’s a wonderful start.” — Secrets of the Super-Learners, Harvard Magazine, 1991

I thought this quote went along very well with this post. “The humility that facilitates learning” … if we can’t admit — and get comfortable with — what we don’t know, and the fact that it will take time to learn, then we may jump too quickly into one philosophy or another, then jump just as quickly out again.

That “capacity to admit one’s ignorance” goes hand in hand with a small child’s excitement as they learn the answer to where the moon is, or why the world is found.

What happens to that capacity for learning? Older children who shrug uncomfortably away from any situation where they might be revealed to be ignorant, where they might feel stupid — what makes them that way? A world where every question has a right answer? Where knowing the right answer is valued above having the adventurous spirit to look for their own answers?

If we can be comfortable with not knowing and embrace the process of learning — if we can be excited by what we don’t know, rather than frightened — who knows what we can accomplish?

23 comments

Comment by Amy on February 13, 2009 at 03:50 PM

This reminds me of one of my favorite anecdotes from the summer I worked as the "nature director" at a summer day camp run by a very highly regarded (read: expensive) private school. One day two girls, maybe around ten years old, came to find me, wondering what male mosquitoes eat, because they knew only the females bite humans. I said I didn't know, let's go find out.

"You don't KNOW? But you're the TEACHER!" they exclaimed. I told them nobody could possibly know everything, but I'd show them where to look it up. I took them to the shelf of field guides and so on that I'd set up (all my own) and we looked it up. I've never forgotten: male mosquitoes eat nectar, just like a butterfly or hummingbird. I hope they've never forgotten either. I don't care if I taught anyone at that camp nature stuff; I hope I taught them that no-one knows everything, but if you know how to find the answers to your questions, you are knowledgeable indeed.

When I began working in the environmental education field, I was very aware that I am not a gifted naturalist. I don't have the ability to keep all the plants straight. I have terrible eyesight and have to rely on my ears to identify birds, and I often get confused. What I did have was the confidence to say, "I don't know. Let's look it up." When a child on a nature walk says, "What's that?" and someone says, "It's blah-blah-blah," naming it, the curiosity ends. The child moves on. I've seen it happen a gazillion times. But if you get down and look at it, really look at it, the discovery goes on.

Hmm. Always interesting to me to see how my ideas on education were coalescing so long ago!!

Comment by Thimbleina on February 13, 2009 at 06:38 PM

I think as adults we need to lead by example with this. We don't always admit that we don't know the answer when asked a question by an inquisitive child. I am trying to endeavour to admit to both my 2 and 5 year old that I don't know the answer to all their questions and especially with my 5 year old that we can both discover the answer together by looking things up on the internet. I have found this parenting thing such a great learning curve for me and cannot believe how much I have learnt by admitting that I do not actually know everything and that it is fun finding out those things that I may not have by not admitting my ignorance

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 13, 2009 at 07:26 PM

amy and thimbleina, that is exactly why i always say the most powerful six words we have are “i don’t know — let’s find out!” :^)

the most important thing we can do for children is convince them not only that they are powerful learners but that everything they are learning is for *them* — not for us, not for anyone else, but for them to own and use to do whatever they want.

it’s so true that many adults think they are supposed to provide answers, instead of being their child’s learning mentor, showing them how to find out what they need to know, how to teach themselves *anything* they need to learn.

i’ve worked with teachers who told me their whole identity as a teacher is tied up in transmitting information to children — that, to them, is what teaching is. whereas other teachers know that it is impossible for you to know everything! you can’t possibly, so stop trying — and focus on showing children how to learn.

thank you for your great comments!

Comment by Skye on February 14, 2009 at 12:58 AM

I am always doing this as I really feel there is so little I know..we are always going to a book or looking it up on the net....but recently I've wondered if I'm losing the respect of my 9yo son, he hates not knowing things and will rarely admit it nor knowing.He reads alot and remembers things. When he asks me something I often reply-thats a great question, I don't know the answer...lets go look it up...Sometimes I catch this look--- why don't you know the answer-- a frustration maybe...thanks for this though, confidence building stuff these arrows of yours pointing in the right direction.

Comment by Aimee on February 14, 2009 at 01:03 AM

I have been thinking about this. When does she want info, when does she want find out for herself? She already says, "can we look up... on the computer?" And is it just us or is the car when really interesting questions happen and then later I can't remember what she asked? I keep meaning to put a notebook and pen in car, just for that reason.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 14, 2009 at 01:08 AM

random share -- cool link -- explore roald dahl’s writing hut online! :^)

http://www.roalddahlmuseum.org/discoverdahl/exploring/default.aspx

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 14, 2009 at 01:24 AM

skye, have you noticed how 9 now is like 13 twenty years ago? i sure do. ;^)

aimee, notebook in the car is a great idea. :^)

Comment by Julie on February 14, 2009 at 01:32 AM

When I was in school I know I was nervous about admitting that I didn’t know the answer to a question. However, it has never bothered me to let Hannah know that I didn’t know the answer to many of her questions, or that I didn’t know how to explain it to her just then. When I say I don’t know, but we can find out, she will suggest things like “hey! I know let’s look it up on the computer” or “Let’s ask Daddy, or Grandma, or......”
My Grandma gave my daughter a ridiculous answer to one of her questions one day and mentioned to me that any answer is better than saying “I don’t know.” She said that she knew that you were not supposed to let them know you didn’t hold all the answers. I’d rather admit from the get go that I don’t hold all the answers, but that I will take her questions seriously, and help her to find the answers. I want my daughter to know I don’t expect her to hold all the answers one day either, but that I hope she will know how to pursue the answers to the questions that arise.
The trouble I find is whatever response she is given first she holds to. It is hard to explain to her at this point that someone was mistaken in the answer they provided earlier. It frustrates me when others sometimes give her a thoughtless response in order to quiet her faster.

Comment by Sherry on February 14, 2009 at 01:51 AM

Aimee,
I recently discovered that my cell phone, which is several years old, has voice memo recording capabilities (up to 69 seconds). When I'm out and about and don't have paper, I can always record a question or thought and replay it later.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 14, 2009 at 02:25 AM

julie, what a great story about your grandma. it seems to me that if you pretended you knew everything, then later on, when they find out you don't know everything after all, you'd lose credibility. whereas if you are open about not knowing *everything* but firm about the things you *do* know (the important ones, the ones we really want our kids to learn from us), then maybe they'll remember what we were sure about and believe in it. :^)

hearing wrong information, or differing opinions, is actually a good thing as kids get older -- they learn to tease out what information is true, form their own opinions, weigh evidence, etc.

of course, that's little comfort now!

i was always sad when someone rushed to answer one of the boys when they were wondering aloud .. because i knew if they didn't get an answer straight away, they would chase it down themselves with interest. but if it was just handed over, they would say "oh" and forget about it.

sherry, what a great idea -- of course, i'm so forgetful, i would need to put a post-it on my phone reminding me to listen to it later. ;^)

Comment by Dawn on February 14, 2009 at 03:36 AM

Interesting thoughts. I have the same issue as Julie with adults in our life giving questionable anwers or ones that are out right wrong! I agree with Lori that in the future this will be a good exercise in judging informations validity. How sad is it going to be when they learn they can't trust the words of certain people they generally trust and love!!
Anyone have experience with this aspect of false information from loved ones?

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 14, 2009 at 04:27 AM

i just remember growing up knowing that my grandparents had very set ideas that were different from my parents, and my parents had very set ideas that were different from my own. a generational thing. even as a child, i knew my grandfather had certain opinions that differed from other people.

i’ve had to gently (i hope it was gently ;^) ask some family and friends to try to remember not to answer questions outright. but i haven’t had the experience of a family member who fought me on it.

Comment by Cordelia on February 14, 2009 at 02:10 PM

I think mine was 3 or 4 when he started telling people that "a "good" question is one mama and daddy don't know the answer to."

Re: 9 being the new 13, I do think parent used to get a longer "my mom/dad knows everything" stage. I don't think I got much past 18 months from mine. I remember the heartbreak the first time he responded to "the fritos are all gone" with "Oh. Can I see the bag?"

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 14, 2009 at 02:43 PM

cordelia, lololol .. thanks for my first laugh of the day! :^)

Comment by Becky on February 14, 2009 at 04:43 PM

My three and a half year old now says, "Well, if you don't know and I don't know, we better look on Google." It's taken me months to be comfortable hearing this from a positive perspective, since I'm a perfectionist at heart. It's been hard to realize that I will never in a million years know the answers to everything, especially when it comes to in-depth questions of biology, zoology, and botany.

Comment by Cathy T on February 14, 2009 at 05:15 PM

When my oldest child was 4, 5, and 6, he learned that he could get Dad to stay up late with him if he asked a "good question" right before bedtime. He still does it, at age 14! But one thing we learned was to keep a notebook in his room to record his questions so we could look them up first thing in the morning (or do research while he slept to find out some starting information - remember this was before the internet! LOL).

We have used our cell phone to send messages to ourselves at home on our answering machine; I never check my cell phone messages!

As kids get older, they do start to learn that others have different ideas than they do about what is right... and that there can be shades of right to a question. I think of how my mom thinks that ice cream is good for you because it has milk in it and tells my kids that when she serves them ice cream. When you realize that she doesn't like the taste of milk and that she can't understand why anyone would like milk, you can perhaps start to understand why her thoughts go the way they do. My kids laugh about it at our house but they let her tell them what she does and don't contradict her because we have talked about her background. The kids see her all the time and can see the good in her!

About the quote - I have been thinking how our family has figured out over time that there we have some resident "experts" in our house but even the experts don't know it all. We have a train expert, a Lego expert, and a "name that kind of truck" expert. :) And Dad knows a lot of science stuff but he is happy to look up things on the internet or in a book. My four year old always says "look in a book" or "check the internet." He tells me that the Super Kids in the show Super Why do that (PBS show).

Comment by Elise on February 14, 2009 at 07:15 PM

I was thinking about how kids and adults these days (myself included) have a tendency to believe that if they find the answer on-line, it must be 'true'. My son doesn't work on the computer yet (he's 2 1/2), but I remember working with middle school students who would google sources and choose the first site or piece of information that looked cool or interesting.

It really leads to huge possibilities of exploring what makes a source more or less reliable. And then of course you could go in the direction of exploring ways to verify information that you find yourself (through experimentation, checking multiple sources and perspectives, etc). I find it mind-boggling and exciting at the same time :) There is a cool site out there about understanding and exploring primary and secondary sources - if I find it I'll post it...

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 14, 2009 at 08:27 PM

becky, lol, only we perfectionists would be so sincerely sad about not being able to know *everything*! ;^)

lately i can’t remember why i walked upstairs, let alone detailed information about flora and fauna. ;^)

cathy, my older son used to always do that, too — as he was climbing into bed he would suddenly want to have deep philosophical conversations about what is at the edge of the universe. ;^)

elise, so true. one of the great things about project work is that children don’t just read one book and do one craft or read one wikipedia entry and do one paper. they read multiple sources and almost always come up against things that don’t quite agree — such a great opportunity for learning.

emily wrote about this here:

http://www.whiteoakschool.com/camp-creek-blog/2008/4/16/project-based-learning-a-teachers-perspective.html

Comment by amy on February 14, 2009 at 08:33 PM

Elise, that has been part of our project learning. My son is interested in Jupiter, so I showed him how to search online--first just on the NASA site, and then on Google. But with Google, we always check, Where is this information coming from? Do we think it's reliable? Is this other site maybe more reliable? The same holds true with the books we've looked at from the library. When were they published? Is a book on space published in 1991 necessarily going to be accurate today? We compared information on Saturn's moons from an older book and a new book and saw the number of moons listed was very different. Now as a matter of course, he checks publication dates on the space books!

Re: Giving kids false answers, I can't help but think of the dad in Calvin and Hobbes. Of course, that's a cartoon, and it's funny there. Every now and then my husband starts to make up outlandish answers for the boys' questions, but they pretty much can tell when he's putting them on.

My boys' grandparents were over the other day, and my father-in-law started quizzing my older son on space stuff. He didn't mind. (I checked; there is a tendency to quiz the homeschooled kids to make sure they're learning!) Then he turned it around and quizzed them some. There was so much they didn't know! Part of what I like about the projects is that the boys can teach me. They own this learning. Isn't that so much more empowering than me answering their questions?

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 14, 2009 at 11:10 PM

amy, i love that. we did a space project at school when jack was 4 and we got a lot of out-of-date books from the library. all that comparing information and figuring out what was correct .. it was a great experience.

lol re: c & h.

you are so right about ppl quizzing the hs’ed kids! and i love what you said about kids owning their learning — the whole pt is for them to become experts so they *can* teach someone else. you don’t really know something unless you can teach it to someone else. it is so empowering.

Comment by Cordelia on February 15, 2009 at 11:27 AM

We enjoy finding the mistakes in old books, too. This summer,we found an old science for kids book (written by a doctor no less) that explained that viruses are the smallest kind of bacteria. I think it was from the early 60s.
We found lots of mistakes and passed it on to some friends for a "spot the errors" game. (We be geeks)

It's nice to find adults outside of the family who are comfortable with kids developing their own expertise. (otherr than saying "you're so smart!") Following up on your suggestion, my son contacted a local "expert" an ornithologist, and that interaction was exciting and affirming. I just love those expert guys! Rocket people, computer people, bird people, love them. It's funny, but even though they are often a bit pedantic in their interactions with kids, it doesn't have the same squelching quality that teachers dumping information into little heads does. Maybe it's because of the matter of fact way they communicate about something they have discovered by following their own passionate interest, as opposed to telling kids somethign because the kids "should" learn it. ("you need to use the ??? insulation with the A4 engine in the Zipp rocket because the housing is ..." (something like that) versus "Now we are going to learn about the basic parts of rockets. Who knows what the part of a rocket that causes it to move is?"

Contact with adults who pursue things passionately is different maybe because the adults share the kids belief that this is interesting stuff, maybe because just finding people who spend much of their life studying something that interests you means it is complicated and should take alot of time and effort.

Comment by Barbara on February 15, 2009 at 12:31 PM

It's interesting that the author of the quote describes the importance of giving children questions, since in my experience kids overflow with questions as long as we let them. I don't think it's really that we need to give them questions as much as we need to stay out of the way of their natural curiosity! Then the questions just come naturally.

One of my favorite things about homeschooling is being on a learning journey *with* my children. I always find it funny when people make reference to me as their "teacher," since this doesn't feel like the dynamic at all--we're all in this together, learning side-by-side. I learn things from my kids all the time! My kids ask me questions all the time that I don't know the answer to, and we're at the beginning of learning how to find the answers together--but they certainly don't assume that I am the all-knowing dispenser of knowledge--what burden that would be.

The other day, my daughter (7) said to me, "You know, Mommy, there are a lot of things that I know more about than you." This, to me, is a sign that I'm doing something right.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 15, 2009 at 02:53 PM

cordelia, yes! every experience we’ve had contacting experts has been great. they have special tools, they throw around special vocabulary, they always tell you and show you something you didn’t see anywhere else. they answer any question you have, and sometimes they tell you something you read in a book was wrong and then show you exactly how they know. and the kids are so excited afterward.

there’s a dilbert quote about how maybe kids would be more interested in working if they knew there were more than 15 different jobs .. making contact with grown-ups who are passionate about their work, and over the years meeting *many* of those people .. i think it’s solidified my sons’ attitudes that they will grow up to have work they love.

barbara, oh, i think you’re right. it’s like the bottom level is traditional schooling where the teacher provides the question, the answer, and then wants you to parrot back the answer when she asks the question again later. the next level up is problem-based learning where the teacher provides you with the question and then you get to seek out the answer on your own. and the top level is interest-led learning where the child gets to formulate her own question *and* answer it.

i have written before about feeling like “teacher” has become a pejorative to many homeschoolers, but *i* don’t feel that way, because i have worked with teachers and created a school where this same kind of learning is done. teaching doesn’t have to be an adult cramming factoids into children’s heads, and school doesn’t have to be a place where everyone marches in lockstep memorizing standardized test answers. there are teachers who are observers and documenters and facilitators.

that said, i understand what you are saying, because the people calling you their teacher are probably thinking of a traditional planning, lecturing, pointing-at-the-blackboard type teacher. ;^)

and of course, i agree with you re: the sign that you’re doing something right — project learning is about helping children become experts! :^)

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