“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.

* * *

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.

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  • SanfordA February 26, 2010   Reply →

    “Yet, they need to be reminded too that our jobs are not to give our students the answers.” I would not say things this way. I say that our job as teachers and professors is to help students understand the basic principles. We must know how students think, and build from there, using the basic principles, logic, and verifications. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  • Brad_King February 26, 2010   Reply →

    Hey there:

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I imagine that this is, on a certain level, a semantic argument. Although I would agree that in my basic courses, skills are far more important. However, I teach mostly upper level and project courses where answers are not necessarily the point.

    The more (inelegant) point I was trying to make wasn't that skills weren't taught – but that my colleagues sometimes care so much, they get concerned that they will not know something. Or that they will find themselves unable to answer a question. (The eternal fear of a professor.)

    I talked with a few of them and found myself telling them: it's okay if you don't know. It's important that we don't know. Not knowing isn't something that should be feared.

  • JangoSteve February 27, 2010   Reply →

    Hey Brad, thanks for the insight, I really enjoyed your post. Having read your blog, I really wish I had had more professors with your reasoning and intentions.

    While I was studying for my undergrad degrees, I remember a few occasions where I had found a mistake or mis-worded concept in the textbooks To make matters worse, one of these occasions was in a class with the professor who had written the textbook. Any time I would speak up and point it out (keep in mind that I did this with the expectation that I had misunderstood the concept, not that the textbook or professor were wrong), I would sometimes get smug responses from the professor and fellow students… responses to the effect of, “who are you to question the professor/textbook?” On one hand I would agree and feel ashamed. On the other hand, I would then question, “Who are they to expect others to accept their word as truth without objection? If they truly know, then they should have no problem setting me straight with facts and reasoning.” After all, I am a no-nothing student, how could they expect me to NOT ask questions?

    Also, as a side-note, it's probably beneficial to point out that the “shit you know you don’t know” category not only contains information you don't yet possess, but also the information you once possessed but can no longer recall.

  • Brad_King February 27, 2010   Reply →


    Thanks for the reply. It's been fun sharing your thoughts with other professors. It's certainly prompted a fair amount of discussion amongst my friends + peers. I think there are more professors out there who agree with what you say than you know.

    We're in the middle of an over-haul in th education system, integrating emerging technologies into the classroom. Changing the ways in which we look at teaching.

    Still, it's nice to engage with students (or former students or recent students) about the topic. It's helpful for everyone 🙂

  • brettborsvold February 27, 2010   Reply →

    I'm coming across a hard mentality of failure being taboo more and more.

    Reminds me of how in my business courses where management is not management its coaching; & as such its a team gig. I'm doing a year abroad right now surrounded by students from all over and its interesting to see how and who emphasizes trying & effort vs just taking in what is “lectured” or presented to us. I'd have to say I've used many more courses here googling the course/lecture topic than ever before. I'm still wondering how and where its taught to be curious in life.

  • Brad_King February 27, 2010   Reply →

    Hey Brett:

    Thanks for reading and commenting.

    I tell my students throughout my courses that I can't teach them to be curious. That's an internal motivation that I can't provide. I do, however, try to model “curious” behavior by talking through my thought processes. To demonstrate “curious-ness.”

    I find the collaborative learning environments I set up, after I get them used to working in a collective online environment, oftentimes spark discussion and curiosity.

    And…I would encourage you to fail as much as humanly possible in this life 🙂

  • brettborsvold February 27, 2010   Reply →

    Collaboration, it works because its emphasis is on the journey and what may come of it rather than the specific endgoal. With that in mind I see the path as having more benefits just because of the possibilities. Bah, I ramble down a less specific road towards vague metaphors and philosophy.

    When it comes to curiosity would you say its more about environment(role-models) or the person themselves? I guess then that leads to nature vs. nurture.

    Failure is something I do for certain, but I find its something I seem to have a taste for it akin to the ebb & flow of the tides.

  • Brad_King February 27, 2010   Reply →

    It's funny you mention journey vs. end goal. I teach, quite specifically, that the process is more important than the product. Surely we must finish things (product) or we'd swirl around in a sea of half-finished thoughts. But for the creative mind, the thing that sticks with you – the learning – comes from the process. That is what will give you joy.

    I don't know if that's right. I only know it's right for me.

    As for curiosity: if I knew the answer to your question, I'd be a millionaire 🙂 but for some questions, it's enough to simply ask.

    Now I'm curious about you 🙂 Who you are, what you do and all of those stories.

  • brettborsvold February 27, 2010   Reply →

    Curiosity does kill the cat, hence a good 9 lives they have. We wouldn't see curiosity as a bad thing if they only had one life.

    I've finally got a blog where I'll describe me, etc; I just don't have more than a title for it yet. I'll comment here in the next couple days when I do get the content rolling.

  • Brad_King February 27, 2010   Reply →

    That would be excellent. I look forward to it.

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