Why What Students Don’t Know Is More Important Than What They Do

by Terry Heick

For me, my biggest takeaway from college was learning what I didn’t know.

So many passionate, crazy-smart people–teachers and students–that modeled for me learning as I hadn’t seen it before. Entire courses on single ideas I wouldn’t have given a second thought without someone pointing it out for me. It was mind-boggling.

In high school, my academic interactions were based almost entirely in trying to figure out what the teacher wanted, and then doing my best to give it. There was creativity and curiosity and rigor, but it was almost always obscured by my desire to ‘do well in school,’ and the teachers desire to ‘get results.’

As teachers, we implore students to forget what we want, and focus instead following their curiosity, showing their creativity, and reaching for deep understanding, and then we throw them in a highly-orchestrated game of grades, GPA, test scores, reading levels, and dizzying tangle of metrics that often runs counter to everything we asked of them.

See Also: Sentence Stems To Replace ‘I Don’t Know’ or ‘I Can’t’ 

The Value Of What Students Don’t Know

Understanding something is a process that starts first with awareness–not a goal, standard, or learning outcome. Those are all pieces of the puzzle that is instructional design, but understanding is different–something that moves on its own–evasively–between observation and wisdom.

Awareness comes from careful observation of yourself, your own thinking patterns, and the bits and pieces of the world around you.

Take an academic idea–the writing process, for example. Understanding the writing process is as much a concept as a skill. The skill part comes in knowing its parts and using them over time, but understanding is also a matter of context and place.

What is the writing process?

How can one use it well, and badly?

What other processes exist in the world that can help me understand the process of writing?

What’s the most relevant step of the process for me, as a writer?

What tools and strategies do I know of that I can use to support me at each stage? Do good writers move back and forth across each stage?

Is this process a school thing, or a real thing? How do the technologies I use to communicate impact my need to write effectively? How can I know if I’m ‘doing it right’? Is the writing process, as it sits, still relevant in 2018?

Ignorance As Context

These questions all hint at the complexity of everything, no matter how we, as teachers, hope to parse and compartmentalize. Breaking these complexities into bits might seem to serve assessment and daily lessons, and can even help students take one bite at a time, but ultimately, things need to be seen and used in contexts native and meaningful to learners.

Which brings us to the idea of starting the learning process with what we don’t. The idea here is for learners to simultaneously encounter the thing and its context.

The writing process, and the irony of structuring creativity through that process.

The steps of the scientific process, and their elegance.

The branches of government, and the need to be governed.

So, the macro and the micro, but also the known and the unknown. You can’t understand a thing unless you have some idea of what you don’t know. Activating prior knowledge is great, but what about present ignorance? Otherwise, you have no sense of scale or immediacy.

Teaching Is The Thoughtful Design Of Interactions

This isn’t a matter of overwhelming students with some huge pile of bullet points or a concept map of everything they don’t know. Learning can’t be a to-do list, or all you’re ever going “do” is the list. Teaching, then, is as much a matter of designing how students encounter and play around with ideas as much as it is delivering content.

Helping them to see what they’re learning in the ecology of what they do and don’t know–using what they don’t know as an ever-present bridge to everything else.

When students ‘play’ with these ideas, they naturally encounter their own shortcomings and misunderstandings. They hit their own soft ceilings of knowing, and are all the more keenly aware because they hit it themselves and weren’t driven into it relentlessly by ‘instruction.’

So play and self-direction are strategies that can help learners encounter what they do and don’t know, but this is a broader, learning model issue that depends on the basic patterns between teacher, student, content, and networks.

But see if there’s room for it in your classroom. Instead of a simple KWL chart or pre-test, ask them to discuss, narrate, write about, concept map, or otherwise communicate what they do and don’t know.

Then help them stick with it; help them explore what they don’t know further still.

Try This Instead

Instead of celebrating their ability to answer questions, help them see not knowing as a wonderful kind of beginning. Ask them plainly, ‘What don’t you know?,’ then grin.

Then push it further.

Use what they do know to etch out a kind of organic boundary that can shrink in or grow outwards as they encounter new ideas, examine misconceptions, and combine multiple sources of information to create new perspectives that they can use to grow further still.

Ask, ‘What are the limits of what you know?’

Poetry, for example. What is the difference between a verse and a stanza? Which definition–verse or stanza–do you feel more confident about? Which can you can explain in greater detail with more compelling examples? Fantastic, now what about the other one–the one you don’t know as well–what about it?

I mean, what’s really the thing and what’s not the thing? What’s the essence of it? You don’t know, do you? That’s fantastic. Let’s make meaning together and find new things that we don’t know, you and I.

And then use this pattern yourself. Bounce back and forth between the known and the unknown with enthusiasm and purpose, letting students know that it is exactly these kinds of interactions that lead to the kind of understanding that changes lives.

Because without that kind of self-direction, students will always being following footsteps rather than possibility.

The Value Of What Students Don’t Know; image attribution flickr user globalpaternshipforeducation