Why Hide Ignorance?

I spent almost half a century teaching students as young as 5 years old to middle-age adults. One thing they held in common with me was how hard it was for any of us to acknowledge our ignorance! Yet the whole point of school is to help students to acknowledge their ignorance.  Otherwise it would be like taking driving lessons and pretending you already knew how to drive. Absurd. But commonplace.

I remembered how I discovered this rather gradually. It led me to realize that one of the first critical tasks that I needed to accomplish at the beginning of the year was removing the notion that my primary task was evaluating my students. You, the student, are here for me to help you deal with what you don’t know. So don’t hide that stuff. You are making it hard for me and your classmates to help you when you spend your energy trying to convince me that you already know what you don’t already know. It was easier said than done.

There comes a moment–an aha–when kids believed me. Once in a while a kid actually said, “oh, you want to know what we don’t know so you can help us!” Such a simple unbelievable idea. My own kids assured me that they always tried to hide their ignorance from their teachers–even the ones they liked. It’s deeply ingrained. I tried to convince them that once they think their teachers are convinced they are “smart”, then they ought to ask the questions that the “dumber” kids are afraid to. But was that fair of me? I wanted them to be good people even if it risked the teacher’s assessment.

The same is true for the evaluation of peers, teachers, staff. I had to convince them of the same thing. It’s what’s doubly difficult these days when the focus is almost entirely on looking at teachers and kids as judges of their merit.

Yes, it complicated the task of being a principal too.

It had to be tackled. With teachers, I made sure that the system of evaluation included them and peers they trusted. I insisted that good teaching was our shared concern. With students, I went over their report cards with them ahead of time, and then met with parents–with the student always present–afterwards. It was critical that we learn to listen to each other and ideally agree, and it’s through this repeated process year after year that we become trusted allies to kids and their families and vice versa.

I believe that these worked–for the interests of adults and children–and the school.

It’s why on the “high stakes” tasks that were require for graduation from our high school, we saw our role as teachers to help them do it well–we taught to the test, so to speak, and we rehearsed a lot. The task consisted of reviewing and defending a portfolio of work. The panel’s task was to judge the student’s work and their defense. It took student work and presence seriously and most of the kids enjoyed being the center of attention! We had shifted the odds in favor of authenticity. They were being judged in the end by “others”– and never exactly the same others—representing the faculty, another student and someone chosen by the candidate.

As their teachers and advisors, the only way to prep the kids was to deepen their deserved confidence–to be sure they really knew their stuff–rather than focusing on techniques for fooling the judges.

Although, I’ll admit, they got to be better at the latter too—but learning to con a bit is probably an authentic talent for success in college and career! p.s. Lots of schools and colleagues came to visit us ; many other NYC schools– maybe 30-40–developed similar processes, and we all made some films together to show how it worked. We were naive. We thought it would be allowed to grow naturally. Instead it has been sadly undermined by the latest decade of so-called reforms. But it’s important as an answer to–“but what else” could we do? Surely not an approach
that reinforce the very habits that good teaching and learning are built upon. Tune in next month for more thoughts on this.

3 Responses

  1. Dear distinguished Ms. Meier,

    I read with great interest your postings and like them very much…
    I am contacting you today to learn how I can submit for your review my teaching materials.

    I am a local music teacher in Brooklyn, NY, originally from Romania, and for the past 30+ years I specialize in ear training & sight singing training for young musicians.

    I would be honored if you would review my work, a collection of 32 Lessons for Ear-Training & Sight-Singing (76 pages each, a total of 2,432 pages, available as PDFs and e-books).

    My goal is to make my work available to music teachers who believe in and need high quality eartraining and sight-sining manuals.

    Please let me know if I may send you the first 2 Lessons in PDF format, as I do not send out unsolicited material.

    My work is also available for free on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/iLearnMusic4Free

    32 Lessons, 32 hours of online exercises, recorded live on a Grand Boesendorfer piano….

    Cordially,
    David Livianu, MMA
    The Juilliard School
    718.627.4049.
    david@livianu.com

  2. Hi Deborah,

    Doris Samuels (Jasmine and Jonathan Howell’s auntie from MHS ) here. Just wanted to let you know that they are responble citizens, now.
    Both went to college on full tuition scholarships and graduated. Jonathan in three years! Jasmine is TFA corp member teaching 9 th grade math in an inclusion class and Jonathan has a great day job, is studying for the LSAT and explores his music passion, daily! Thank you so very much for teaching teachers how to believe in children and how to show children that they do. My niece and nephew have had great child outcomes as a result of MHS being an active part of their village. Thank you! Doris Howell-Samuels

  3. I stumbled upon this looking for something else, but I wanted to point out that some people (ok, me) did this bc teachers aren’t always helpful. I’m 37 & still cannot do algebra. I mean sure, I hv a college degree, but I took 5 years of math. In elementary /he high school if I said I didn’t get it, they’d rewrite it exactly the same way & stare at me as if there was no way a person couldn’t understand that. So u learn to satisfy them & go, “uh ok, ya.” I had even been sent to the hall for not getting it. Lol. And u, a teacher, still seem annoyed at the kids. I was so desparate to please that I spent $50,000 later in life in college basic math, several elementary algebra, intermediate algebras, pre algebra…and Algebra 1 only once (calculators allowed then) so a teacher wouldn’t hv to be “annoyed” by my ignorance. I know you just want them to say they don’t know it so you can teach them, but all the ones before you probably screwed it up.

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