Teaching Is Establishing The Need To Know

‘Not knowing’ is clumsy, precise label for the starting point of learning. Teaching is, at least in part, establishing the need to know.

teaching is establishing the need to know

Teaching Is Establishing The Need To Know

by Terry Heick

The above image comes from a presentation from , an Assistant Professor of Digital Humanities at University of Wisconsin-Madison. And it makes an interesting point.

‘Not knowing’ is an awkward but precise label for the starting point of learning.

The purpose of assessment can be thought of in ‘not knowing’ terms–not so much to find out what the student understands, but what they don’t understand. What they don’t ‘know.’ It’s about at this point that semantics get in the way, and start tangling themselves with basic epistemology. What does it mean to know? What does it mean to understand? How can understanding lead to competencies? Skills? Is there a difference between competencies and skills?

What is knowledge? Wisdom? How does knowledge lead to understanding, and how can understanding calcify to something approaching wisdom?

This sounds like a lot of abstraction and wasteful what-for, but it’s not different than an artist thinking about color, or an architect thinking about design. Wisdom, understanding, knowledge, skills–and the pathways between each–are the very core of learning. There is nuance within each of these ideas–critical distinctions that matter. If our fall-back phrasing concerns whether or not they ‘get it,’ we shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t.

So then, ‘not knowing.’ Is this the same as curiosity? Probably not. ‘Not knowing’ can precede curiosity, but it’s not a certainty that it will evolve itself that way. In fact, pure ‘not knowing’ can’t develop into curiosity–how can we be curious about what is entirely unknown? We have to have something to stand on, no?

But this can be a useful starting point for developing lessons or learning experiences. Essential questions. Project ideas. Opportunities for collaboration. Essay topics. Even choices in literature, assessment form, or learning technology can start from that single kernel of ‘not knowing.’ This happens by first starting with what is known.

A student may ‘know’ about the Declaration of Independence. Who wrote it, what its general purpose was, who its audience was–even how it is structured as an argument. They may know who signed it, as well as the date it was signed and the city it was signed in. This is all lower-level knowledge that is easy to distribute. To tell. Inform. Pass from one person to another. And that’s a key characteristic of knowledge–it can be, in large part, distributed.

Understanding cannot. Wisdom cannot. These are acquired under self-imposed cognitive duress. The moment a student can no longer tolerate not knowing, they can pursue an idea. If they do so with curiosity, and in terms and forms they can be playful and confident with, that curiosity can evolve itself to something aggressive.

That I know this and this and this helps me ultimately understand that, but soon thereafter I can sense I’ve hit my limits in ‘knowing.’ And those limits bother me more than the work it takes to push them out of the way. In fact, I can’t imagine not knowing this thing in its full context.

This Declaration of Independence–what other similar documents exist that the American founding fathers used as a model? Why a document at all? What did the fact that they drew up a formal document say about their state-of-mind?

What hope did they have for its success? Was it a shot in the dark, or did their strong language belie their uncertainty? Are there are any words or phrases within the document that can give us a clue?

Was the document itself a red herring? A way for the colonists to form the illusion of control?

What does this document mean to me, today? Is it a critical link to the Constitution and other ageless documents? Is it worthy of my study? Why? What can this document tell me about Ferguson, Missouri, and social media? Terrorism? Modern-day colonialism?

Why should I care about this document? And William Faulkner? The physics of liquid? The scientific process?


Citing sources?

The writing process?

World War II?

If I see that this matters, this whole give-and-take between you and I will change. Don’t give me information; I’ve got Google for that. Teach me what Google can’t. Give me context. Help me ask my own questions. Show me what knowledge and understanding and wisdom can do for me. Help me to see where one stops, and the other begins.

Help me to see the limits of my own knowledge in a way that fills me with wonder. As a song I’ve never heard. Why should I care? Not the future me–the right-here-and-now me.

And maybe more crucially, how can we–you as the teacher, me as the student–turn this learning process all the way around, where it becomes to be about what I don’t know as a kind of spectrum of context and possibility.

Where ignorance is a kind of elegant and formless to-do list that shapes and reshapes itself endlessly, lighting my eyes with boundless curiosity and fire.

The Need To Know: Learning From A Position Of Voracious Not Knowing