A sixth-grade girl waved me over to point out a small, puffy mushroom on the side of the trail. “It’s cool,” she breathed. “What is it?!”
I felt a sudden panic. Over the course of my environmental educator training, I had learned the names of countless mushrooms, trees and critters in this part of the western Connecticut forest, but I had never seen this type before. What was it? I had no idea.
I admitted I wasn’t sure but that we could certainly figure it out, a group challenge. We circled around the specimen in question and took a good look. We described it and how it was similar and different to the other fungi we’d seen so far. We hypothesized how big it would grow, and how it would reproduce. We pulled out the pocket field guide and tried matching up the mushroom with the most similar picture in the book, and confirming the details with a dichotomous key. And then we hiked onward, into a forest filled with extraordinary diversity and surprises.
Not knowing the answer to a student question shouldn’t be a cause for crippling alarm. Like every other teacher in the world, I do not know everything (despite what I used to joke to my students). This doesn’t make us bad teachers, it just means that we need to adopt a method of teaching that does not require us to know everything.
Educational theorist Paulo Freire wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed (first in Portuguese, translated to English in 1970), in which he described a notion of education that he called the “banking theory.” Knowledge was currency, and students arrived as empty piggy banks waiting to be filled. The teacher was the holder of the money, the knowledge, the power. Knowledge was power.
True, when educators submit to this banking theory style, it can be easier to maintain order through constantly reinforced authority, but it can create an unhealthy dynamic. I have observed situations where a student asks a question and the teacher answers immediately. The students begin to learn that they can obtain the answers from the teacher (who ‘knows best,’), instead of learning the skills and perseverance ("grit" is a hot word nowadays) to figure it out on their own. In the case of my first anecdote: more important than the young mushroom-finder hearing the name of that particular specimen is that she practices observing deeply and using a field guide to be able to continue learning on her own.
Of course, it is essential for teachers to be competent and experienced in their field. A good teacher must be incredibly knowledgeable about her subject in order to facilitate meaningful and differentiated learning. A great teacher will be able to anticipate and answer questions, but I believe the best teachers will refrain from answering them and will empower students to answer themselves, to be responsible for their own learning. Freire considers the solution to be exactly this transition where teacher-of-the-students and students-of-the-teacher shift to teacher-student with student-teachers.
Transitioning away from the banking theory is particularly important in the fields of science and environmental education. If our goal is to encourage curiosity, observation, synthesizing, logic, analysis, perseverance and creativity, then the go-to response to questions cannot be the offer of the correct solution. In a 2009 study on curiosity, researchers MJ Kang and team defined the concept as the “complex feeling and cognition that accompanies a desire to learn what is unknown,” and a key motivating force for learning and discovery. If teachers are so quick to explain the unknown, then what does that do to student motivation and opportunities for discovery?
We need to develop a cadre of students who ask good questions, and then we have to resist the urge to answer them directly. It does students a disservice to respond immediately with the “correct answer.” Step back and let the discovery happen on its own.
When I was in middle school, I remember grilling my teachers with the hardest questions I could think of. Like a sponge, I always wanted to learn more, but part of me also wanted to stump the teacher "experts." The memory that sticks out the most, though, was one time in science class. I was curious about something related to perception of color. After a pause, our teacher responded: “Now that is a great question. Do you think you could find out the answer and report back to us tomorrow?” I didn’t feel a sense of deflation. I actually felt excited and a little proud. I spent hours that night, scouring scientist forums and experiment ideas on various websites. I showed up to class the next day, proud to share my findings.
Once I became a middle school science teacher myself, I decided that I wanted my students to ask me questions I could not answer immediately. It means they are thinking deeply.
As a teacher, perhaps one of the most important things we can do is say we don’t know. Because adults don’t know all the answers. And learning is not just a matter of asking the one with knowledge, with power. It’s about figuring out how to learn for yourself.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Kang MJ, Hsu M, Krajbich IM, Loewenstein G, McClure SM, et al. (2009) The wick in the candle of learning: Epistemic curiosity activates reward circuitry and enhances memory. Psychol. Sci 20: 963–973.