“Shit You Know You Don’t Know” or My Story About Teaching (28 of 90)
I’m staring at the screen, as I do in the evenings, trying to figure out what to write. I’ve reached the limit where I’m starting to feel redundant, the repetition of my nightly ritual drowning out the thoughts I have throughout the day.
The danger of writing all the time is that you begin to think about the stories happening around you in writing terms. You look for beginnings, you look for middles, you look for ends. You become arbitrary.
Or you can. Or I can.
For years, I’ve laughed that I move through my life as if it’s a novel. I seek cliff hangers, ending points and re-starts. I move through what feels like a living story. I seek out metaphors to understand what’s happening. I endlessly pepper my friends (and sometimes strangers) with probing questions. I want to understand so I can tell stories about it later.
I have no idea why I do this. But now that I’m writing again every day, I find myself doing it more. I don’t know if this is a good thing, only that my mind does it.
This week, I’ve been living the story of teaching. Of all the things I’ve done in this life, it’s simply the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
Which is odd that the thing that brings me the most happiness is all predicated on failure.
* * *
This is my absolute favorite time of the semester: weeks 7-9.
My classes are set up as stories, 4-week blocks that build upon each other. From lecture (1-4) to training (5-8) to practical (9-12) to project (13-17). We’re in the transition time now, when the students begin to put the pieces of the class together. When the discreet bits of data I’ve hurled at them begin to take the shape of the information they will apply.
It’s a frustrating time for them. Because I won’t give them any answers. I stead-fastly refuse to tell them what is and what isn’t. They have to work that out on their own.
There is guidance, for sure. As much as I can. Learning, though, isn’t something that a teacher can do for the student. All I can do is give them the best advice I can, walk with them a bit along the road and hope they find their way through the briar patch.
It’s not always a seamless transition, but I happen to like the mess that comes with it. I love to see their passions and frustrations bubble over, spilling out around them. I love it because it means they are in it.
While they don’t yet see it, I can see how they are getting it.
* * *
In my class, that means something a bit different. Getting it means failing. Often.
Life, as it turns out, is a giant rolling series of mistakes, missteps, failures, falls, roadblocks, crashes and other emergencies. We are surrounded by the crumbled wreckage of our past, our missed opportunities, our fear.
And they are all beautiful, these failures. Because they teach us what we don’t know.
I bring this up because this week I came across this essay, “No One Knows What the F*** They’re Doing (or _The 3 Types of Knowledge_) _ Bridge Blog”).
It was written by Steve Schwartz, a young man of no particular importance in terms of educational pedagogy or institutional teaching knowledge. For all intents and purposes, he should have very little to offer in terms of helping me explain my teaching methodology to my students.
At least if you think of knowledge in a certain way. Which I don’t.
The essence of this piece is there are three types of knowledge:
- shit you know, the actual facts and knowledge you have internalized
- shit you know you don’t know, the knowledge you know exists but which you don’t yet possess
- shit you don’t know you don’t know, the information you have written off as unimportant
This is a poor summary, of course. You should read the article.
His argument, though, is succinct: The goal of education isn’t to fill up on shit you know. It’s to learn enough so that you have a wide breadth of shit you know you don’t know, which allows you better “do life” because you able to go find the important things. What you don’t want to do, he argues, is exist in a place of ignorance – shit you don’t know you don’t know, where you write off knowledge or the search for knowledge because you have decided it’s unimportant.
* * *
I bring this up for two reasons: I’m riding the seven-week high tonight and I’ve found myself sitting with professors giving them the “No One Knows” pep talk for the past few weeks. (Well, I’m now labeling it that because the essay is genius. Before Essay what I gave was simply a pep talk.)
I’m surrounded by professors who care passionately about their students, who are open to new ideas, who are able to herd their students into amazing projects. Yet, they need to be reminded too that our jobs are not only to give our students the answers. That it’s okay to stand in front of a room full of these students and tell them, “I don’t know.”
That, as it turns out, may be the most important thing we teach them.
That it’s okay not to know. That knowledge isn’t memorized always, it’s meant to be found. It’s alive around us, always moving. And if you think it’s static, unchanging and completely know-able, you will find that you have missed so much about the world.
The stories we tell our students, the little pieces of information we give them to help them weave their stories, these are never clean, complete or finished.
Sometimes stories fail. Sometimes we reach dead ends. (Somehow we forget that the brilliance of David Foster Wallace comes in his fearless exploration of ideas that reach dead ends more times than not.)
But failure is okay. Because in that, we learn the shit you know you don’t know. And that’s pretty good.