Saturday, August 21, 2010

Some Unlearning To Do

I follow Jack Uldrich on his blog, The Chief Unlearner  and on his website  Mr. Uldrich wears many hats:  scholar, author, speaker.  Primarily he is a futurist, using the tools of science to help predict the future.  As the title of his blog suggests, he believes strongly that much information we now believe as true and important will be outdated, useless, and even detrimental to us in the future.  Our ability to adapt and move forward depends upon our ability to question, test, and abandon ideas.

In schools, especially in what sometimes get called the “best” schools (simply because they turn out a lot of students who go to the “best” colleges – another essay for another time), students are invested in exhibiting what they know, on demand, not in asking questions.  With SSAT’s, PSAT’s, SAT’s, AP’s, ACT’s and the rest of the evaluative alphabet thrown at them, not to mention the quizzes, tests and exams that are part of their daily school life, the message is pretty clear.  You’ll get sorted and ranked and rated by what you can show you know.  On your mark, get set, know.  One can see students in tears after only getting a 90 on a Latin test, or absolutely distraught about their future following a C on a Physics test.  Such stress, such scenes, are unfortunately predictable.  It’s a wonder students have any intellectual curiosity left.  Who can blame them? 

Unfortunately this emphasis on being able to display what you know leads to another handicap, pretending you know, or hiding the fact that you don’t know.  Ignorance is a stigma.  Pretending you know and hoping you aren’t found out is a safe tactic, a chance to save face.  I’ve seen this over and over with new ninth graders.  I give them a passage to read. We read it out loud in class.  I ask “Any questions?”  Quick glances around and silence.  I know from experience that there are at least ten vocabulary words in the passage that  many of them are unfamiliar with.  I know that there are connections to their own lives that make the passage much more meaningful when they understand the vocabulary.  I know the writer’s point relates to our work ahead during the semester together.  Granted, they are fourteen, just starting high school and acutely self-conscious.  Time to play it safe.  Silence. 

I up the ante. I announce a quiz.  They dutifully produce paper and pens.  Ten vocabulary words from what we just read and a short answer on why I gave them the piece to read in the first place.  Afterward I tell them, the short answer question is worth 50 points.  Each vocabulary word is worth 5 points.  However, I deduct double the value of the question for each answer that is a guess or just plain BS.  I then offer them a chance to surrender.  All they have to do is draw a white flag on their quiz and they’ll get a 50.  Nearly all surrender.  After all the anxiety, all the 50’s, all the hooting and hollering at the BS answers, we work our way around to discovering what the words mean, the author’s intent in the passage, and how it relates to them.  And finally, we discuss why no one asked questions in the first place.  And yes, the quiz is bogus; I don’t give quizzes for a course in public speaking, and IT WON’T COUNT ON THEIR GRADE. 

Students are far too willing to wait a teacher out.  Rather than embarrass themselves in a show of ignorance, individually and collectively, they’ll “go dumb” in the hope that sooner or later the teacher will rise up and display the golden egg of an answer she’s been sitting on.  And often as teachers, we do.  We succumb to the silence, the dead air, the passivity in the room and surrender the answer to our own question. So, if you are a student, why ask questions when you can avoid looking stupid, being made fun of, and the teacher will tell you anyway?  If you are a teacher, why ask questions if you’re going to  answer them yourself anyway.  These are  habits worth unlearning!   



  1. Hey Uncle Bill, nice blog. Questions are a double-edged sword. They can produce real learning and true knowledge, or they can produce crippling embarrassment. My philosophy is to listen intently, figure out what I can (from the lesson and subsequent questions) and then if I CAN'T figure it out, ask the question. One of my favorite and most enlightening classes was a discussion class--actually a photo class gone wrong. Everyone was encouraged to just talk. I never saw so many students express themselves so fully, since there was no pressure of failing, looking stupid, or peer pressure.

  2. Well said! The problem, of course, rests not just with the teachers or the students, but with the larger framework of our society. Too often, I believe, we present a vision of the world that is a zero sum game, and that is the vision that your students have of knowledge and learning. "If I don't know something, then somebody else does, and THEY WIN AND I LOSE. After all, there are only so many people who can go on to have success and happiness in life, right?" Of course, you and I know that that's a reductive, unhelpful, and often self-serving way of looking at the world, but I think most of the country would disagree.

  3. as is usually the case with humans and behavior, the issue is the system of incentives (and the disincentives that come with it) to which people are subject. as dan said, the notion of individual accomplishment and failure as the only lens through which to view the world is far too common. and this need to quickly tabulate individual accomplishment comes (as it almost always does, it's a well established psychological and neurological constraint) with an accuracy trade-off. the system is also self-reinforcing, more import placed on immediate evaluation leads to greater implementation of this kind of thinking which means less time spent on broader more nuanced evaluation which means more time for quick-fire evaluation which leads to... this is the problem of our times, growth for growths sake (with the value of growth being extracted for short term projects). to circle back to bill's post I present two articles on this general phenomenon and its implications on society wide issues, urban and economic development, and ponder what the influence of the ultimate laboratory, the classroom might have.