The confidence not to know
October 3rd, 2011 by Frank LaBanca, Ed.D.

I distributed an article to my graduate leadership class that I am teaching.  It was a fairly challenging article to read in general – a meta analysis.  However, to the neophyte researcher, it was probably extremely challenging.  Being a research article, it had the typical parts:

  • abstract
  • introduction
  • methods
  • results
  • discussion/conclusion
  • references

My experience tells me that you don’t necessarily read a research report from start to finish, but rather use the subheadings to guide your search for information.  However, not everyone knows that, and there certainly is an art to the process based on expertise.  However, teaching that class, something else stood out – some students clearly didn’t understand some of the concepts and were (afraid?) (shy?) (lacking confidence?) (thinking they should, when really they shouldn’t?) to ask questions, or to verify their lack of understanding to me.

It gets me thinking . . . you really have to be confident to be willing to stand up and say you don’t know something.  That’s a real challenge.  As an educator, it’s my responsibility to create a culture that promotes confident questioning.   After all, I am working with educators and that’s where their expertise lies, not necessarily in educational research.  But as this cadre builds their knowledge – becoming a good consumer of educational research is critical, because after all – that’s what leads to being a producer of educational research.

12 Responses  
  • Mary Fernand writes:
    October 4th, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Creating an environment that promotes confident questioning–and sharing thoughts, “answers”, and so forth, is essential. A challenge I face is encouraging my students to stop phrasing their responses as questions. They have become so accustomed to worrying about having the “right” answer that their responses are tempered with “like”, “sorta,” kind of” and often end with the question mark voice register as they look to me to confirm the validity of their response. I work hard to change this behavior and over time, do find students catching themselves when they do it and self-correcting. In my role as student, learning how to read such articles is a wonderful and authentic experience for me to better appreciate what my students go through when they approach challenging texts.

  • J.P. Ryan writes:
    October 4th, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Smart people ask questions. That’s what I tell my students. But, many times in my previous graduate classes or certain workshops I find I am learning in an area I am not comfortable. At times I withhold my question for fear of holding back the class while the instructor explains a concept, or that I’ve drifted off during the previous explanation, but mostly I find that I learn by listening to the questions and answers from class discussions. I do have to say that I always admire the person who speaks up and prefaces his/her question with…”I have no idea what you mean…” A self-confident learner (and person) is secure in what s/he knows or doesn’t know. The whole purpose to school is to expand and deepen your understanding of subjects, concepts, your role in your learning, and in others’.
    It also really depends on the disposition, patience and purpose of the learning environment created by the instructor. There is an art to challenging people to learn and take in information, process it, and then explain it. I’ve had the pleasure of learning in superb teachers’ classrooms and the displeasure of sitting through monotone, lecture-loving eggheads who cruised through a course as if there was only one student who was already proficient in the topic sitting, and listening attentively. Ouch….that made for a terrible experience and I felt I took away minimal understanding. In particular to this semester’s class(es), we are new. New to each other, the specific topics, eager yet apprehensive to challenge ourselves in areas we know we’ll falter, struggle and ultimately succeed. I’m glad the topic was broached and I look forward to further discussions and reflections.

  • Jennifer Eraca writes:
    October 5th, 2011 at 11:10 am

    I always tell my students the worst they could be is wrong, so ask. It is something that I continually model and discuss with my students and own children. Take ownership of your learning and empower yourself by asking the hard questions..or the questions you do not know the answers to. I think this is both a skill and a social value that has to be synced. Too many people are afraid to ask questions or admit they may not know something. Questions create dialogue which in turn creates relationships and builds knowledge.

  • Mark Schilling writes:
    October 5th, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    This is a tricky one. I feel that I myself am out of my comfort zone even in our own cohort group and do not know whether to participate or just sit and take notes. I can only imagine how my eighth graders must feel. One thing I feel that we can do in making them comfortable to ask questions and take that risk to participate is to make the most comfortable learning environment possible. As such I believe that the body language of the instructor is the key. I make certain that when students volunteer and maybe go off topic or are answering “incorrectly” I make sure to redirect them positively. Also, even though we are accustomed to time management I try to never look at the clock when a student is speaking. At any age level, I feel that nothing makes a person feel inferior about their answer, question, or participation more then looking at a clock, watch, computer, phone or anything that has to do with time. What I have done is to set a timer for myself that tells me when I need to stop, and the students know it is for me and not them. Yet the students can always ask me their questions later or write them down and I will get back to them. I know it sounds basic but little things like this do matter. I know because I was the over active, long winded participator that after a couple of “clock watchers” turned into the moody kid who said nothing. Obviously I got over it (with a vengeance) but at the time, back in 7th / 8th grade, it didn’t feel so hot.

  • Kara Kunst writes:
    October 16th, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I am reminded of the video we watched in class which showed how young children have no filter with their thought process; however, as the children grew older, they became focused on having the “right answer.” I know that I often hold back on asking a question, or even answering a question because I do not want to be wrong. It is great to be reminded that we learn best from our mistakes, and that the greatest learners are always asking questions-seeking to learn more each day.

  • Matt Correia writes:
    October 17th, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    I agree with Kara in the sense that the filter that adults have holds them back from being honest and projecting their fears aloud, in front of adults that may or may not be accepting to their fears. In fifth grade, I can see many of my students beginning to “hold back” and shy away from even trying. These students, when asked, have explained to me that sometimes, they are just not sure how to word the question they may have. I considered this for some time and I feel that in addition to not being able to express the question that they have, I feel that they have not put enough effort into the thought process behind the question. At this age, it is common for many students to hold back and wait for others to ask the question they have. Unfortunately, many times their questions or confusion goes without notice and the student lets it go.

    I think back to the article we looked at in Frank’s class at the beginning of the semester. The article was scientific and many of use were confused with the information that was provided. I remember reading the article and having questions, just like some of me peers that were in my discussion group. Once seeing their confusion too, it was easier to speak up and ask questions.

    One way to move from this within the classroom is to be honest and model this type of thinking for students. I have found that at the elementary/middle school level, it can help. Now the high school/college level, not sure if this is as effective?

  • manka writes:
    October 19th, 2011 at 8:00 am

    I have the luck of being a biology major as an undergraduate. I also have the luck of taking 2 scientific reading/writing courses as an undergraduate. Continuing with the luck thing, i’ve already been down the researching a problem twice and have lived this with my first research considering dendrochronology and reforestation of abandoned farms and second with student reclamation of lost instructional periods due to excessive absence (both epic fails BTW-). Learning the process is valuable and certainly helpful but it’s more than reading a paper or listening in class. You have to live it. Do it. Experience it and fail, more frequently than succeed. Here’s the key though. Scientific research- it’s not failure until you stop or quit. The process involves continual reflection, revision and analysis. Do you ultimately provide an answer? not always, but your research, contribution and efforts may assist in laying a foundation for better understanding that consequently may lay the path to a solution to a problem.

    @ JPRyan “Smart people ask questions”…that’s an intersting comment. You elaborate a bit later but culture often dicatates how/if questions are asked. If the classroom environment is caustic whrere a teacher or peer is actively humiliating/embarassing students for their questions questions stop and the lesson becomes a soliloquy. It’s my opinion that questioning and analysis are an inherent abilities that allowed humans to be highly successful organism o nthis planet. and today those same traits are squelch in classrooms across the country all too often.

  • Damien Holst writes:
    October 19th, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    Many complex ideas can be understood by disaggregating the information. There is a causal relationship between fear and the unknown. Fear lends itself to intimidation which in effect leads to silence. In public education students allow the fear and intimidation caused by the unknown to lead them to silence. The silence alleviates any effort towards disaggregating the information. If the students were able to take the initial step toward breaking down the information into its component parts, they would then realize that the initial fear may have been unfounded.
    James Joyce once wrote, “A man’s errors are his portals for discovery”. As an educator you have to foster an environment where divergent thinking is valued. As Mark said, positively reinforcing answers, although they may be incorrect, can create an environment where the student feels comfortable sharing their ideas. Allowing students to share divergent thoughts, without judgment or reprimand may lead students to develop eagerness with regard to sharing convergent/divergent thoughts.
    Acquiring knowledge is often about discovery. When students are not allowed to express themselves by asking questions, an avenue towards discovery is effectively closed. The silence of one student in a class could potentially have an exponential effect. The next question a student asks could potentially change the dynamic of the entire class for the better. Creating a positive environment for questioning and learning can have such a positive effect on the entire educational process.

  • CCosentino writes:
    October 30th, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    I agree with Mary, that establishing an open environment which people feel comfortable engaging in discussion is essential. I believe that part of the reponsible for this falls on the teacher/facilitator/leader. They create a’safe zone’ – the space where people feel like they can ask anything and their contribution will be appreciated. However, the students/group also are responsible for this. Sometimes, despite the positive atmosphere the facilitator attempts to create, it is the other members that make the students feel uncomfortable. They are afraid of how their peers with judge them, so it is safer to sit back until they have the situation figured out. After some time of seeing the positive interactions, the individuals within the group will begin feeling more comfortable and will open up in conversation. So, while the facilitator is responsible on some level for creating an environment conducing to questioning/discussions, the members within the group also play a large role.

  • Emily Chaber writes:
    November 3rd, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    I think it is our role as educators, leaders, etc. to create an atmosphere where the students feel comfortable enough to say that they don’t know the answer, or to share their questions. However, I think an educator can only do so much. After reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, I would have to say that no matter what type of environment you create in your classroom, if your student(s) have a “fixed” mindset they will be afraid of asking questions not matter how comfortable the environment is. They think not knowing an answer reflects on their intelligence and if they get an answer wrong, then they see themselves as failures. While, a student with a growth mindset would see it as an opportunity to learn and to continue asking questions to help improve themselves.

  • Karen Fildes writes:
    December 3rd, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    I actually really enjoyed the exercise in reading the meta-analysis but admit that most of the statistical terminology was way above my head! I love research but have not been in a statistics class in many years and realize that I have a real fear of it. As we are just starting out in this cadre I think we are still “feeling out” where we fit into the group and maybe there is some nervousness about appearing to not know what we think we should. I want to air it here that I definitely enrolled in this program because I want to learn more and most definitely am outside my comfort zone with the statistical analysis topics. I LOVE the professional conversations we have had and continue to have and look forward to growing as a professional with my cohort over the years!

  • Debbie Parker writes:
    December 4th, 2011 at 5:56 am

    I’m still grappling with the ideas of producer and consumer. Now I know not only do they related to our economy, but technology, and research. Mary used a great explanation during her presentation last week. Producer/consumer also applies to professional development. This week I am under the gun to get multiple professional development opportunities ready for January 2. Making up lost contract days has caused this long-term task to move up on my to-do list. When surveyed our staff, overwhelmingly wants to time to practice at being producers. They aren’t understanding the need to be consumers of information in order to be effective producers. Besides, CEUs demand a certain amount of consumer time. This is a change for many staff members. For years I have observed our teachers willing to sit and “be present” at lectures — not wanting to produce results. It is an interesting change in their attitudes!

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