The Not-Knowing Stance

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I wrote recently about how painful it can be to admit that I don’t know. In spite of that, I highly recommend not knowing. Here’s why, in a nutshell: because, first, it can give me valuable information about other people and, second, it can open up space in which accurate knowing can emerge.

I’m going to share an amazing secret about emotions that pschoanalysts have known for years: Emotions are contagious. People share them, implanting their own feelings in others, communicating with remarkable precision through actions that trigger in others the emotions they are feeling themselves.

My son taught me this lesson many years ago, when he was four years old.

I had been away for a few days, and he was angry at me for having left him. But he was four, so he was incapable of telling me in words. Instead, he told me through his actions: He dropped a paper towel on the floor and, when I asked him to pick it up, he refused. He hemmed, he hawed, he protested that he couldn’t. He stood right next to the paper towel and looked at it, but he didn’t stoop down to pick it up.

I became incredibly frustrated and angry. I yelled; I expressed my absolute disbelief that he would refuse to do something so simple; I banished him to his room for a time-out. I did not know why he was behaving this way, and my not-knowing was unbearable. So I treated him as if I did know why he was behaving this way: He was being bad and needed remediation. End of story.

Fortunately, I took advantage of my son's time-out to give myself a chance to sit with my anger and confusion. By acknowledging these feelings and allowing the possibility that they were contagious -- that is, that my son was feeling them also -- I arrived at a working hypothesis for why he was behaving in such a pointedly frustrating way: He was making me feel and express his anger and confusion for him. Brilliantly. Knowing this allowed me to throw the paper towel away myself and spend some time with him, acknowledging the very valid reasons for his anger at me and confusion about my absences (He missed me! I had abandoned him! Was it his fault?) and assuring him that I loved him and would always come back.

What does this have to do with teaching? Insofar as not knowing can carry a lot of anxiety with it, a parent or teacher can naturally respond to not knowing by taking somewhat draconian control of it. Anxious teachers can turn not knowing into knowing that an offending student is just being bad and needs to be punished. Taking the not-knowing stance means stepping back from the urge to control or punish, paying close attention to one's own disturbing feelings, and wondering if those feelings are contagious.

If the disturbing feelings might be contagious, then the teacher can wonder why the offending student might be having such negative emotions. Figuring out the possible sources of a student's feelings of anger or anxiety or frustration or helplessness (and, clearly, there are many possible sources, both in school and out) can suggest ways to change things around so the student can relax and open up to academic learning. Not knowing, then, can be a very effective way to teach. But it's not necessarily easy, as it depends on acknowledging and welcoming negative feelings that most of us would rather banish.

The not-knowing stance also depends on understanding that, when a teacher can say “I don’t know” confidently, she opens up space in which others can know. If, when I’m tempted to panic because I don’t know, I can quiet myself, ask relevant questions, and listen to the answers – that is, if I can take the not-knowing stance – I begin to learn. I learn about what others know, which can be quite a lot. I learn about how they know: how they pattern their understanding, what their assumptions are, what their blind spots are. When it seems helpful, I can contribute an interpretation or a way of organizing what I’ve heard, an image or metaphor that has occurred to me that might extend our thinking. Not knowing, in other words, dedicated not knowing, can open up space for play and creativity.

I highly recommend play and creativity, too.