teaching) immediately articulated that, for them, understanding
was synonymous with being in possession of knowledge. (One student, a gifted thespian with a flair for cynicism, added “or at least
what information would be on the test.”) I asked them if understanding requires knowledge, what does that mean for someone
who fails to possess knowledge?
My question elicited silence, even from the typically effervescent students at the center table.
I waited it out, curious what responses they were reluctant to
“Are you wanting us to be mean?”
“Ummm . . .” I cocked my head at the question from student
who had identified herself as sensitive in an earlier class period.
I looked at the sensitive student and then raised my gaze to the
rest of the class. “Is that mean?”
Their response was the closest thing to collective confoundedness I have ever observed.
“Yeah. Who wants to be called ignorant? Would you Mr.
That two-minute exchange made me wonder: Are we trying to
get students to memorize facts and rigidly apply skills in the hope
that they become understanding, or are we simply trying to help
them avoid ignorance? And does it matter?
I think it does matter, and not simply because I prefer to take
action out of hope rather than fear. I say this because I agree with
the cognitive neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein (2012), who in his
book Ignorance writes, “Mucking about in the unknown is an
adventure; doing it for a living is something most scientists consider a privilege . . . But they don’t own it, and you can be ignorant
too” (p. 15). By embracing our students’ ignorance, we are encouraging them to wonder. And perhaps more importantly, by valuing
not knowing, we prevent students from assuming that the acquisition of knowledge means they have achieved some educational end.
According to Dewey (1966), this is a faulty assumption because,
“The educational process has no end beyond itself; it is its own
end” (p. 50).
Rather, if we take Firestein (2012) at his word, we should
have our student scientists not “stop at the facts [but] . . . begin
there, right beyond the facts, where the facts run out” (p. 12).
As a teacher, in practice this means we need to be thoughtful
about how the “Facts [should be] selected, [using] a process that
is a kind of controlled neglect, for the questions they create, for
the ignorance they point to” (p. 12). It is our role as educators
not to focus so much on what we are teaching but how what
we teach will help our students ask questions about the world.
In light of Firestein’s insight, it should not come as a surprise that
practices that encourage students to wonder not only “why the
rainbow appears, or how it appears . . . [but] also (continue to)
wonder at the rainbow” can inspire students to see the ingenuity
behind something as arcane as a mathematical proof (Sinclair &
Watson, 2001, pp. 40–41). Extending Firestein’s use of the selec-
tive neglect of facts even further, students should be encouraged
to not just ask questions but to identify problems and to design
potential solutions for them. This form of teaching, referred to
by some as design-based learning (DBL), has been shown to effec-
tively teach difficult concepts to myriad learners, with the greatest
success (and engagement) observed in those students previously
perceived to be low achieving (Doppelt et al., 2008).
It seems that there is justification for encouraging students to
embrace their ignorance. Therefore, I was curious what might prevent my pre-service teachers from doing the same. So I asked
“The curriculum.” The response from the Bachelor of Education program seniors was almost choral.
“What do you mean, ‘the curriculum’?”
“If understanding means having knowledge, the curriculum is
what the students are supposed to know at the end of the year.”
“But what are they supposed to do with what they know?”
I would love to say that this response was troubling, but it was
not; it was expected. Much of the literature on teacher preparation
suggests we become the teachers we have had; if our teachers considered themselves curriculum delivery devices, then we will be
too. It is as if there is a collective view that students’ minds are
empty vessels that exist to be filled with the knowledge that pours
forth from our classes, but there is little concern for what happens
This kind of practice has an effect on students—and not a pos-
itive one. As described by students in various stages of their science
career to Pelaez, Ryder, Packer, and Cohen (1997),
It was a struggle for me and it became an unpleasant
experience because I don’t feel I have a firm base even
yet. In some cases it’s a matter of simple memorization.
It’s not a matter of necessary comprehension. You have
to get through the course and you decide, boy, I’ll never
do anything that involves this type of science!
Science is hard and boring, especially those terms you
have to remember, like in Biology, what’s a biome.
They even had a lecture based on vocabulary, but we
walked out of it not knowing a single vocabulary word.
The breadth of knowledge taught in science seems to ensure student exposure to the vast expanses of scientific knowledge, but
with there being so much coming so fast, students seem overwhelmed; it is less that their cup runneth over, and more that it
seems to have sprung leaks. But for those students who do manage
to grab hold of what is mentioned in class, what constitutes a sufficiently full vessel? And what is a student to do when their vessel is
sufficiently full? The students in Pelaez et al.’s (1997) study
explained that in the absence of context, the memorized material
is effectively meaningless.
By embracing students’ ignorance through inquiry-based
teaching, context can easily be generated, but what is it that prevents young teachers from embracing this practice in their own
classrooms? It has long been assumed that it is a lack of content
knowledge that effects the comfort of pre-service teachers with
regard to quality science teaching, but it has recently been shown
that it may instead be their lack of exposure to inquiry itself that
limited the pedagogical practice (Smit et al., 2017). This issue
could be ameliorated through inquiry-based approaches like the
Hands-on-Science (HoS) program at the University of Texas at Austin, where pre-service teachers’ exposure to inquiry increases their
perception of the relevance of, enjoyment with, and confidence in
science (Riegle-Crumb et al., 2015).