The joy of not knowing

What teachers and other educators do best is, by and large, tell people stuff. It can be unsettling to not know things, so it’s no doubt natural to assume that if we don’t like it, then neither will others. So we tell people. But is it OK to not know the answers if you’re an ICT teacher? Here are a few thoughts about that, followed by a video featuring Kate Russell.

(In fact, Kate Russell, one of the presenters of the BBC’s Click, was a huge influence in my writing this post, as I’ll explain. Another influence was Elaine: I said to her, “What can I blog about today?”. “I dunno”, she replied. “Great idea!”, I said. But I digress.)

Kate Russell speaking at the Learning Lab launch

Not knowing is OK

I’ve always thought that if a pupil asked a geography teacher what a dalmatian coastline is, and the teacher replied “Not sure, to be honest” – and meant it – it wouldn’t augur well for that teacher’s career prospects. But saying “Not sure” is absolutely fine in ICT, because it’s impossible for anyone to know everything, even about programs they use every day. Who has not discovered a new keyboard shortcut, or a new web page or blog or app many, many times? You only have to spend five minutes on Twitter to discover at least 50 new things about technology. Not knowing is not only OK, it’s honest. It’s also desirable…

Not knowing should be part of a teacher’s job description

In my opinion, a teacher’s job is about much more than telling people how to do things, or about stuff -- it’s about getting others to want to know about whatever the stuff happens to be. Teachers are role models, and one really good kind of behaviour to model is to admit not knowing things and actively trying to find out about them. For example, I think all teachers should be encouraged to do research, whether that be of the standard academic kind or action research based on things they try in their own classrooms. We are constantly being told that good teachers and teaching are central to the success of education, so how come there aren’t lots of properly funded opportunities for all teachers to devise their own professional development programme so they can find out more about the things they don’t know? This leads me on to my next point…

Not knowing leads to exploration

The healthy (as opposed to cynical or jaded) response to not knowing is to embark on a process of finding out. Because of the exigencies of the curriculum, examinations, tests, and Ofsted inspections, and possibly a too traditional view of what teaching looks like, we don’t give students enough time to explore things, in my opinion. I’m not talking about ten minutes in a lesson, or even an hour. How about a whole afternoon, or a whole day, or every lesson for half a term?

In 1991 I tried an experiment: I asked my class to create a program that would enable  a shopkeeper to take orders over the phone, apply discounts, record the orders, and have a user-friendly interface. I told them they could use whatever application they liked (spreadsheet, relational database, BASIC or anything else they cared to try), and that they had 6 weeks to do it in. When someone didn’t know how to do something, they could ask me if they wished to or look in various manuals I had in the room or in the program’s help section. if I didn’t know, we’d sit down together and try to figure it out. It was a great experience for everyone. So good, in fact, that in subsequent years I tried similar things, and it always worked well, even with groups of youngsters whose behaviour could be “challenging”.

This idea was a fundamental element of Sugata Mitra’s Hole in the wall initiative: leave a computer lying around and let the kids sort out for themselves what they could do with it, and how they could do it. Mitra’s teaching method was, in fact, to answer “I don’t know” to any questions!

Exploration takes time

And so that brings me to Kate Russell, who gave a talk at a recent event I attended, the launch of the Education Foundation’s Learning Lab (about which I hope to write elsewhere). Kate got into computing because … well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, so watch the video (it will also explain why I said that Kate's talk influenced the theme of this post). And while you’re doing so think about how you might use Kate as a role model for encouraging girls to take up subjects like computer programming or computer science (not because they need special encouragement per se, but because they need to see that the industry, which has many facets, is not completely populated by male propeller-heads!).

On a bit of a side issue, I always find it inspiring to hear people’s stories, especially when they have radically changed their career paths. I enjoyed Kate’s talk for that reason too.

Do check out her website as well: My Web Daily is full of interesting websites and news. Anyway, here is the video. Enjoy.