Slice of Life: Not Knowing

Productive failure is fashionable, and I agree with the concept of it. Struggling through something rather than being given the answer is clearly a better way to push students’ thinking muscles. But many students and adults are in that place of either avoiding failure or acting like they know everything.

By the time kids are in the middle grades, they have an image of who they are as learners and they start to care what others think. The natural why of childhood is replaced by a relatively static concept of who they are or who they want to avoid being.

A large number of students don’t, won’t or can’t allow themselves to struggle or fail. They’re the ones who shut down with a wrong answer; they’re the ones who hide quietly; they’re the ones who have limited tolerance for being wrong and struggle.

Or they’re the ones who came to school meeting and exceeding all measures; they are the exemplars; they don’t have experience with being wrong.

These failure-avoiders can make up a considerable portion of a classroom. So it seems we need to teach to a place that can ease fear, possible shame and provide a bridge to productive failure.

What I’m considering is pushing students to actively and enthusiastically not know. Thanks to Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse we’ve been doing some of this thinking work in reading. We consider what we know from stories and what that makes us wonder.  But I’ve been thinking, perhaps we need to explicitly teach paying attention to what we do not know.  And it starts with me.

When I work with students, I come with ideas about what they don’t know and what they need to know. I might be close. I might be right. But I need to start out with an “I don’t know, let me find out” mentality.

Today I asked students to look at one paragraph and find something they could not visualize.

As the sun touched the horizon, the fishermen abruptly went into their tents. They weren’t really tents–just white mosquito netting hung or draped to make space so they could lie down inside. Not one fisherman stayed to talk or eat more or do anything else. It was almost as if they all vanished at the same moment.

I heard:

” I’m not sure about the sunset, what color is it?”

“Tents? What do they look like?”


“Mosquito netting.”

The horizon, the color of the sunset, tents were all surprises and potential teaching points around visualization. It’s also interesting to note what they did not mention. Do they know what “abruptly” looks like?  If I had just launched into the mosquito nets (the thing I thought they didn’t know), I would have missed so much of their not knowing.

Today, my intent was to allow the wonder and to get everyone (including me) to the I don’t know. We must start realizing that not knowing is an essential, expected and accepted step in thinking.

Thank you to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara of Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. I look forward to sharing and reading slices every week. Read more slices here.