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I Don't Know

June 7, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I taught high school fresh out of college. I was so young that people often thought I was a student (which is perhaps also why I was so nervous about being the one in front). Suddenly, after years of watching someone else do all the lecturing, I was in charge of a classroom. To say I was intimidated is putting it lightly. In fact, I felt many emotions – excitement, anxiety, challenge, fear, etc. Up to that point, my educational model consisted of listening to lectures and doing group projects. I understand the reasons for (and benefits of) a lecture-style classroom, however, having been with Harrison Middleton University for awhile now, I also recognize its limitations.

My wonderful job enables me to discuss a wide variety of literature in small groups. Furthermore, technology allows us to do this with people around the world. No longer am I a lecturer at the front of a classroom. This experience has opened my eyes to some of my own flaws during my high school teaching experience. While I incorporated drama as often as possible into the high school curriculum, I did not utilize discussion nearly enough.

Leading discussions can be extremely intimidating for a number of reasons. First, and most obvious, though the leader directs the flow, there is no ability to control all of the comments. Sometimes conversations enter a place that is off-topic or offensive, and the leader must reign those in. Sometimes conversations seem flat, boring, uninspired, or lacking in participation. Sometimes the students have not adequately read the material, and the leader must carry the conversation or the group must read passages out loud together and discuss it that way.

Also, the leader must do a lot of prep work ahead of time. First, the leader must prepare questions ahead of time and know the reading quite thoroughly. Second, the leader must lay down ground rules from the beginning, such as focusing all comments on the relevant text. Third, the leader must feel empowered to cut someone short, ask that the conversation return to the focus work. Typically the leader does not participate in the discussion, but often people will ask questions that have no answer. The leader, therefore, must feel comfortable with the limits of their knowledge.

As a high school teacher, I did not have any of these resources yet. I always felt ashamed when I did not know the answer immediately. Now, however, I find that saying “I don’t know” is exciting. Now I see it as an opportunity to discover something, even if it is just a factual review of the text. Personally, I get excited when we reach a spot where I do not know something because it is an opportunity to learn.

During a conversation in which I am the leader, I like to prepare clusters of questions. I often find themes, and try to group questions around that theme. Then, if a participant wanders from one theme into another, I can ask a followup question about it. Also, I like to leave a section to the side of my notes for what I call “I don’t know” questions, or, in other words, things I want to look up later on my own. Since I lead a lot of works about topics that are unfamiliar to me, sometimes I have a lot of “I don’t know” questions. And even when I lead discussions about something very familiar – say Shakespeare – I still come up with a ton of questions, which is so exciting!

Because I love to learn, I now realize that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable response in any discussion. Not only have I fulfilled the old adage that “the more you learn, the less you know,” but I also get energized from the list of “I don’t know” questions down the side of my discussion notes.

To see this method in action, join us for the July Quarterly Discussion on either July 11 or 13. We will read a selection from Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind. Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information or to register.

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