“No one in this room, including the instructor, was born knowing this!” I do wish that someone had deposited a dollar into my 401K each time I have uttered that statement in my classes. Students are all too willing to put us on a pedestal, apparently believing that we sprang from Zeus’s head like Athena, with the vocabulary and concepts of our disciplines pre-installed in our noggins. While flattering (maybe), that notion can erode students’ confidence in their own abilities to master a challenging subject. I often remind students, who express amazement that I can remember more than a few anatomical terms and physiologic algorithms, that I, too, once sat at my lonely kitchen table with my left index finger on the text and my right index finger on my notes, slogging my way through A&P for the first time.
One of the best ways to encourage students to persevere, oddly enough, is to admit and boldly display my own ignorance. This tactic incorporates several of our identified learning pleasures, including surprise, belonging to a group, meeting an achievable challenge, and—typically—humor. Here are some of my favorite ways to acknowledge my lack of omniscience:
- Never use the cover on the projector to obscure my own lack of techno-competence. When I first began teaching, a colleague suggested that I “put the lid on” while I fumbled.
Realizing that I was unlikely to fool anyone with that trick, I boldly left it off. Class after class of helpful students have offered tips and shortcuts to help me navigate PowerPoint, Microsoft Word, YouTube and other internet sites. I am effusive in my thanks, and I am finally able to offer a few tips of my own.
Ask for help with my toys. I am the proud, if inept, owner of an iPod, an iPad, and an iPhone. I don’t handle any of them very well, and I don’t utilize many of their goodies to their fullest capacities. I have, however, learned a lot of tricks just by asking students, many of whom apparently acquired similar toys at birth. If you don’t mind being compared with students’ parents or—yikes!—grandparents, you can learn a lot.
- Never turn down help from a younger and wiser colleague. When a construction project temporarily located my desk within arm’s length of a young and brilliant IT colleague (yes, Kristen, that would be you), she gently chided me for being “mouse dependent.” Her helpful list of keyboard shortcuts is now a permanent fixture beside the machine on which I am typing this. I feel younger and cooler every time I use on of those little gems.
- Ask questions about current cultural topics that I have never heard of (and often suspect that I have no interest in.) During a class discussion of the inability of cartilage to heal, I mentioned “cauliflower ear.” Several students mentioned an MMA star who sports a truly stunning example of same. And, yes, I had to ask what MMA meant. Now I know that; I know the guy; I use his picture. Not so much different from my years of watching cartoons to help me relate to my pediatric patients. Students are always surprised when someone with silver hair knows even a little about the Kardashians or Jay Z.
- Say “I don’t know, but I will find out” as often as possible. Then follow through. I keep a clipboard with a blank sheet of paper especially for this purpose on my desk during class. The questions recorded there at the end of each session are my “homework,” and I try to answer them at the beginning of the next class. This shows that I value students’ curiosity and involvement and that I am committed to life-long learning. It also keeps me excited about anatomy and physiology.
Students are quick to spot an instructor who bluffs, and they like to help us when we acknowledge our own deficiencies. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but a little ignorance, if used strategically, can be smart.
Do you have ways that you invite your students to observe your limitations? We would love to hear about them.