It’s OK to Be Wrong

Earlier this week we addressed the topic of expertise. Specifically, that you have it.

Your expertise doesn’t require you to know everything in the class you are teaching.

Rather, your expertise is in your knowledge of how to learn.

Many new teachers feel an immense amount of stress around needing to know every detail of what they are teaching in order to seem like credible experts. A nightmare scenario for many teaching assistants is standing in front of a class and being asked a question they don’t know how to answer.

Remember, though, while a good part of your job is to teach your students content you are also teaching them the very act of how to learn and how to problem solve.

As you know, an important part of learning is being able to be wrong.

This is what we do as scholars in every discipline. We start out with a research question, we design a study to find the answer to that question (whether it be rhetorical analysis or a mathematical proof), we evaluate our data, and we revise our research question based on what we find. We cannot go through this process if we don’t allow ourselves to be wrong.

All of the elements of being wrong, from knowing how to find out if we’re wrong to revising our opinions in the face of contradictory data, are crucial to learning.

When a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to it’s a great opportunity to model how to learn for them. Below are three ways to model how to learn through not knowing.

  1. Say you’ll find out. If a student asks you a question you don’t know the answer to just tell them you don’t know but that you’ll find out. Then, in the next class, follow-up by reminding them what question was asked and tell them what you found and how. This is a great opportunity to have a conversation about types of sources (e.g. a recent newspaper article on the issue says X but if you look at data from [academic source] there are some nuances to consider). This establishes your credibility as someone who can be trusted to find the answer to tough questions, makes the students feel involved in their learning, and is a teachable moment regarding sources.
  2. Ask them to find out. This is a strategy I’ve used with my upperclassmen. If a student asks a complex question you don’t know the answer to you can say something along the lines of, “I haven’t considered that angle but I’d be interested to read what you can find on it.” This works best, of course, when you can offer students credit for their research. If they’re asking a question it’s because they are interested which provides you an opportunity to capitalize on their intrinsic motivation. This isn’t an opportunity to abdicate your responsibility of leading the class, but rather an opportunity to empower your students as researchers. If you ask them to find out the answer to something you don’t know follow up by supporting them in their research. Let them know a few places to start looking or help them refine their question.
  3. Tell them what you think. Though you may not know the exact answer to a question you’ve been asked you might have some educated guesses. This is a time when you can tell your students, “I’m not sure but what I think is X and I think that because of A, B, C.” This is another opportunity to model how scholarship is done for your students. In this answer you let them know that, even though you aren’t exactly sure, you have some ideas based on the things you do know. This models how researchers make hypotheses to fill the gaps in existing knowledge.

Don’t stress yourself out with trying to know everything. Nobody can know everything. Instead of setting yourself an impossible goal embrace the times you don’t know as a learning opportunity for your students.

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