The economist (Freakonomist?) Steven Levitt says that one of the most destructive factors in business is the inability for people to admit to what they don’t know. He says:
“Whenever I propose that a company run a randomized experiment, almost always there’s tremendous resistance. And the reason is because in order to make a randomized experiment be sensible, it means that you have to start from the premise that we don’t actually know the answer. And the randomized experiment is a way both to test whether what we’ve been doing is correct and also whether there’s another way of doing it better. And people always say, “well why would I run a randomized experiment when I already know the answer?” And consequently the firms never learn anything.”
Now this is where I was just a year or two ago. Not that I thought I knew the answers to everything, but that there were things that I was utterly convinced I knew.
And how did I ‘know’ these things?
I don’t know.
But believe me, I knew I was right. I knew that I could judge an outstanding/good/requires improvement lesson. I knew, at the point of learning, that my pupils were learning. I knew that this or that teaching practice, in which I’d invested lots of time and effort, was effective.
Except I found out that none of that was actually true. I thought I knew the answers, but I’ve since learned that I was way off. I didn’t know the answers. I’ve since been challenged on what I thought I knew and really, they were just beliefs. Beliefs that were also left wanting when held up to the unforgiving light.
The problem is that, in thinking I knew the answers, I told other people those answers too. I’ve led groups on the monolith that is SOLO taxonomy. I’ve taught on ITT courses about new technologies. I’ve been both kingmaker and heartbreaker in dispensing judgements when observing lessons.
Being challenged on what I think I know has made my approach to teaching much more discerning. But the important step I’ve had to take was to embrace my own ignorance. To not allow myself to think that I know the answers, or to assume that the answers I have are right.
Where does this belief that we know the answers come from, if often those answers are wrong? Frequently, when challenged on why we ‘know’ something, the response isn’t based in evidence, rather in a sense of intuition: we just know.
The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein coined a word for this intuitive ‘knowing’: grok. In his 1961 novel, A Stranger in a Strange Land, he wrote:
“Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.”
As Heinlein points out, the ability to grok – to absolutely know intuitively – is actually beyond Earthlings’ capabilities, it is a faculty particular to the Martian race.
Now I know that in the eyes of most pupils, teachers are an alien race. This is particularly evident if we are spotted in Tesco on a Saturday morning (point, stare, whisper, probe). But I think the belief that we, like Heinlein’s Martians, intuitively grok – we understand unconsciously – is prevalent in schools. And it worries me as to the extent in which grokking informs what we do. I think it pervades a lot of practice in schools. It certainly has informed a lot of my practice in the past.
I’m not entirely denigrating intuition – it is certainly very important in drawing ideas to our attention, but we are wrong more often than we’d care to admit. (David Didau has written eloquently about it here and here, and I’d strongly advise everyone to read those pieces.)
What is important is that we always detach ourselves from what we think and consider why we think it. We should challenge our own assumptions, rigorously, and embrace our own ignorance. It’s okay not to know the answers. As Steven Levitt says, thinking that we do means that we’ll “never learn anything”.