You Gotta be Ignorant to Learn

So, I was having a conversation with my granddaughter Sunday night after some frustrating homework and instructions from teachers.  She made the comment, “Why don’t some of my teachers know that before you learn you have to be ignorant?  Not stupid-ignorant, but not informed, not aware, or that you just don’t know and want to know”?  I asked her what she meant.  Here’s the gist of her response:

“To learn something, you have to not know anything.  Not knowing about something gives you questions that make you want to find out?  What if early people looked at up at the stars or the moon and already knew how they worked and why?  What if no one wondered how the human body worked, and why just making people bleed did not make them well?    Being ignorant creates the need to want more information about something.  Getting part [of the information] make you have even more questions, which makes you want to find out more, and so on.  Sort of like genealogy.  You want to find out about your ancestors, so you start looking. The more you look, the more you want to know.  School should be like that.  I have one teacher [History] that reads from the textbook, shows a video, and then we have a quiz.  Most everybody does not read the chapters, fall asleep in class, and don’t do well on the quizzes.  We’re bored!  We don’t know why this class matters.  We don’t care.  My art teacher lets me decide what my focus is this year, and how many items I make is up to me.  We watch videos, but we also go to see art; feel art; want more art.  It matters; what do we want to know more about this work.  We don’t have quizzes either.  I wish more of my teachers were like this”.

Well, this got me thinking!  I wondered if there anyone out there is teaching ‘ignorance’.  Guess what?  Turns out there is!  Dr. Stuart Firestein.

Dr. S. Firestein

Dr. Firestein is a professor and a lab director of Biological Sciences at Columbia University in New York.  Dr. Firestein mostly teaches Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience, but has delved into the subject of knowing more and ignorance.  His course is called SCNC 3490, Ignorance.

Ignorance classAccording to Dr. Firestein, The class will, in contrast with a more typical science class, focus particularly on what we don’t know.  This is, after all, the essence of science as practiced daily in labs and in our heads. In his Nobel Award remarks David Gross, this year’s winner of the Physics Prize, noted that “the most important product of science is ignorance”.  Can we communicate this vital perspective to students, who I fear currently believe that science is only a game of facts?

In contrast to courses and media that address the “Big Questions” of science this course is to be a detailed investigation of ignorance as a creative force in science.  It will approach ignorance through a series of ‘case studies’: interactions with working scientists discussing the immediate questions that they are working on in their laboratories.  Why do we need to know these things; what can we do if we know them; what can’t we do if we don’t; what are the obstacles; what are the solutions?  We will be interested in hearing what is important to the individual scientist and how these questions came to be central to their laboratories– whether by accident or by design, whether because of their solvability or their intractability, whether by budgetary considerations or by imagination, whether because the field demands answers or because the field is otherwise ignoring these issues.  Or some combination of these and other factors.

I also found a TEDTalks  by Dr. Firestein’s called, The Pursuit of Ignorance.  His comments, toward the end of the talk on Ignorance about where he thinks this will play out  (in education), really struck a chord.   He says, “We just can’t sell facts for a living anymore.  They’re available with a click of the mouse, or if you want to, you could probably just as the wall of one of these days, wherever they’re going to hid the things that tell us all this stuff.  So what do we have to do? We have to give our students a taste for the boundaries, for what’s outside that circumference, for what’s outside the facts, what’s just beyond the facts”.

It made me think about my granddaughter’s comments on her History teacher.  Remember, memorizing those dates in  school?  We didn’t know why those dates mattered to anyone, but it mattered that we knew them.  We just took a test; 20 minutes later, we forgot everything – why?  We didn’t get asked the next question.  The teacher didn’t create a new  ignorance.

The answer on the History test should not be 1492.  It should not be 1941.  It should be – What your evaluation of the event?  Why does it matter?  Do you want to know more?  Where should we go from here?  What is the next question?

So, let’s have a conversation on ignorance and about what those next questions continue to be.


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