Over the last few months, I have been reading Thomas Newkirk’s ‘Embarrassment: The Emotional Underlife of Learning’ and writing about the specific application of the insights in a writing workshop classroom. You can read my earlier posts here, here, and here.
In chapter 4, the best chapter of the book yet, Newkirk writes about the numerous reasons a student may not ask for help and how doors are not opened to those who don’t knock. While the chapter goes into brilliant detail about the various ways in which embarrassment comes in the way of seeking help, I want to focus on just one that I have repeatedly encountered in my teaching:
Asking for help implies admitting you don’t know.
This would be inconsequential if the dominant culture around us understood not knowing as the norm, not as something to be ashamed of. Unfortunately, though, most school and classroom cultures celebrate the students who know and often inadvertently make not knowing a taboo, an embarrassment, and a state one never wants to be caught in. Far from admitting to a teacher, many of my students don’t want to admit to themselves that they’re struggling with something. They prefer not knowing, passing, and faking their way out of a task to the sheer torture of the confession of their struggles.
Manu, who is all of 7 years old, hates it when she misreads a word. Each time I gently correct her, she lashes out, “You didn’t hear me right. I said it right the first time.” 6-year-old Paritosh has a ready list of topics to distract me with the moment the next step in class stops making sense to him. Most students in my writing workshop prefer to wrestle with their draft alone, even if they don’t understand a suggestion from my mini-lesson. They don’t walk up to me to say that they’d need me to re-explain. I usually only find out days later in my next conference with them.
We live in a culture where knowing, winning, and doing are overrated and struggling, losing, trying, and learning don’t get their due.
In my next post, I will write in sufficient detail about how we can make it easier for students to ask for help. Before that, here is a gentle nudge to normalize it for yourself. Like everything else, addressing this reticence in ourselves is an essential prerequisite to addressing it in our students.
At least where I am from, it is rare to find a teacher who will comfortably admit that they don’t know something. The more ‘basic’ the topic in question seems, the harder it gets to say, “I don’t know.” Interestingly, I have seen a lot more teachers who are comfortable with accepting their lack of knowledge on a topic with their students than their fellow teachers. I suppose the student’s lack of knowledge in other areas of the teacher’s expertise makes it easier. It’s painful to think about how much time could be saved, how much more learning could happen, and how much damage could be prevented if it was easier to just say, “I don’t know.”
This month, I invite you to do some internal work alongside me as I share with you a tried and tested method that has helped me overcome my inhibitions to learn and given me the courage to ask when I don’t know, no matter how silly or basic the question might seem to me.
- Accept that asking for help is difficult. It is human nature to want to know and be in charge. In case you carry any shame/guilt/judgement for not being able to admit when you don’t know, release it. As Daniel Kahneman points out in “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, humans are not all that rational and logical as we make it out to be. Once something doesn’t feel like a character flaw, it is easier to work towards changing it. You cannot shame your way out of something.
- On a blank sheet of paper, write
I am embarrassed that I don’t know _________________.
I encourage you to go all out and write something related to doing your job well. (Here’s a helpful secret: every single teacher, even those you admire, has enough to fill the blank.)
- Part B:
List at least 3 things you know and do well.
(It’s easier to digest that I don’t know something against the backdrop of things I do know. It brings the much-needed perspective I lose when I am hyper-focused on what I don’t know and keeps at least some of the embarrassment at bay.)
- Strikethrough “I am embarrassed that” from Part A:
I am embarrassed that I don’t know ___________________.
- Now read part B followed by part A.
Practice this once every few days until your brain doesn’t kick off its defenses the moment it realizes that it doesn’t know something that it should.
Once you feel a bit better about this yourself, I invite you to do the next courageous act. Choose someone safe and share with them what you wrote. A trusted friend, family member, colleague, someone who will not judge your lack of knowledge and will treat your sharing as just fact, much like your brain after practising the exercise above. You may want to learn what you don’t know at the moment, or you may just want to admit and park it for later. The idea is to get comfortable with not knowing and saying it to ourselves and others.
If you’re struggling to find someone to share with for any reason, feel free to email me at email@example.com. I will be happy to hear from you.
As such radical self-acceptance becomes easier, I believe others will pick up on it. As more of your colleagues watch you and learn to admit when they don’t know something, you’d be laying the foundations for a school culture where adults are matter-of-fact about not knowing. This is the first step towards building a school where students spend all their energy and effort in learning to their highest potential instead of in masking their difficulties.
You can also connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.
Newkirk, Thomas. Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. Portsmouth, NH, Heinemann, 2017.
NOTE: All student names are changed to protect their identity.
Featured art by https://www.khidkiyaa.com/
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