“You know just enough to start your teaching career, but you’ll learn more as you go.”
What if we openly shared this reality with all new teachers—and each other? This is exactly what my colleague suggested during a recent national meeting of educators.
Teaching other humans is complex, humbling work. The best teacher education programs prepare us with an array of resources, developmental theories, academic content knowledge, and pedagogical tools. However, just like any other profession, we continue to perfect our craft as we go.
I tend to idealize myself as a joyful “lifelong learner,” yet deep, meaningful, down-in-the-dirt learning can make me feel vulnerable and exposed. Are you comfortable sharing your learning steps and missteps with your colleagues—the inquiry lesson that went rogue or the difficult conversation with the parent that backfired?
Research tells us that we can all benefit from intellectual humility, the ability to recognize the limitations of our knowledge and beliefs. Studies link intellectual humility with open-minded thinking, curiosity, and intellectual engagement. In fact, students who are intellectually humble are more likely to learn from a disagreement, bounce back after receiving negative feedback, persist in learning, and even perform better academically than their less humble peers.
If intellectual humility enhances our capacity for learning, how can we get more comfortable with the “messy middle” of our own learning as educators, our day-to-day anxieties about our teaching performance, and our general discomfort with uncertainty as humans in this world? Here are some tips.
1. Get comfortable with a level of uncertainty: “I really don’t know (yet)”
According to Daryl Van Tongeren, the “size” of your humility does matter. It can be helpful to draw on the “Goldilocks principle” in each situation—assuring that your humility isn’t too big (i.e., revealing a lack of self-confidence) or too small (i.e., demonstrating arrogance). In other words, can you hold an honest and accurate view of yourself and your own limitations (an intrapersonal skill) while respectfully engaging with others (an interpersonal skill)?
As a teacher educator, I often asked my students to practice using think-alouds as instructional tools. During a think-aloud, you verbalize all your thoughts as you engage in a learning task like solving a math problem, reading a poem, or drafting an essay. Some teacher candidates were hesitant to try this themselves. What if our students think we don’t know what we’re doing? What if they don’t trust us? Aren’t we supposed to be the authorities in the classroom?
Those are valid questions, to be sure. But, when we intentionally share our own vulnerabilities around learning—the stops and starts, the mistakes, the moments of confusion—we can demystify the struggle for others. This is a powerful form of risk-taking—exposing our learning anxieties (“I don’t know what comes next…”)—as it opens us up to more authentic learning. When we try something new, we can feel foolish and inept, and that’s OK. “There’s intimacy in the unknown,” says a colleague I know and respect.
But how much humility is too much? And when might it become “too much of a good thing”? As new teachers, my students worried about giving up their power in the classroom. They feared not looking like the “expert.”
It would be naïve to sidestep the reality of power dynamics here, which is why researchers have also studied the dangers of overidentifying with your limitations while ignoring your intellectual strengths. In fact, research tells us that too much intellectual humility (i.e., intellectual “servility”) can backfire, particularly among those of us who are from traditionally marginalized and oppressed groups who may feel force-fed extra doses of humility in our day-to-day lives. Intellectual servility (e.g., doubting your abilities) can lead to unhealthy perfectionism as well as decreases in civic engagement, conscientiousness, and openness.
The key here is finding a sense of balance that works for you. And there are several potential pathways to “right-sized” intellectual humility that we can practice as teachers.
2. Get curious: “I want to learn more”
When it comes to curiosity and your own love of learning, do you feel passionate about what you teach? If not, what sparks your interest right now?
According to researcher Todd Kashdan, curiosity has multiple dimensions. For example, “need to know” curiosity (technically called “deprivation sensitivity”) compels us to seek answers when there is a gap in our knowledge, like when you’re prepping for a science lesson and the robot you built goes belly-up, literally. What do you need to know to fix it?
There’s also “accepting the anxiety” curiosity (also known as “stress tolerance”). It’s that ability to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that come with a new experience, so they don’t hold you back, like learning how to drive a car or dance the tango for the first time.
With these examples in mind, it may not surprise you to know that researchers link curiosity (i.e., the “need for cognition” or “cognitive closure”) with intellectual humility. If we are aware of limitations to our knowledge or understanding, we may be more likely to seek out new information or experiences.
One of the best ways to model a curious stance in our classrooms is by encouraging open-ended questions rather than feeding our students with all of the answers. Why do we dream? What makes something beautiful? Is happiness a right or a privilege?
Renowned television host and author Fred Rogers reminds us, “When you wonder, you are learning.” Furthermore, research tells us that when we question our own beliefs, opinions, and viewpoints, we are more likely to be humble and recognize the value in opinions different from our own.
3. Be playful and creative: “It’s fun experimenting and trying new things”
My high school algebra teacher found a silly way to get a roomful of adolescents to speak up and share their thoughts and opinions. From the start of each class, Mr. Nelson encouraged us to shout “Banana!” whenever we saw him make a problem-solving error on the board. Calling out his “mistakes” (whether feigned or real) was satisfying and kind of fun. Focusing on “bananas” in class opened us up to be more playful, and Mr. Nelson’s “bananas” set the stage for a more experimental approach to learning and problem solving.
In a recent “On Being” podcast episode, music producer Rich Rubin claims, “Failure gets you closer to the answer,” while creativity and exploration are fueled when we try things “with no expectation.” When we’re freed to experiment as we learn, we can “embrace new ways of doing things instead of seeing them as wrong or incorrect.”
We teachers are fundamentally creators of learning experiences. However, if you’re like me, you may struggle to allow yourself the freedom and vulnerability to let go and play—particularly when you experience ongoing time pressure at work. And yet, when we experience creative “flow,” we may find ourselves lost knitting, drawing, dancing—or even in a rich exchange of ideas—and we can lose self-consciousness through a joyful immersion in the task at hand.
The links between creativity and humility are less clear in the research, yet studies indicate that open-mindedness and curiosity, correlates of intellectual humility, feed creativity.
Further, when a leader expresses humility (e.g., openness to learning, advice, and others’ ideas), team members report creativity and greater self-efficacy (i.e., “I can do this!).
4. Nevertheless, persist: “Let’s keep trying”
Are you driven to solve puzzles or scale mountains? Maybe you strive to perfect your baking skills. Each of these tasks requires your dedication, patience, and a belief in your ability to keep going.
When it comes to the classroom, my most rewarding learning experiences emerged out of deeply humbling academic challenges where kindhearted (yet mildly intimating) educators motivated me to practice, practice, practice.
In my early college days, my American straight A’s didn’t seamlessly translate to my university experience in England. I still remember my tears flowing in Professor Harry Leonard’s office as I held my crumpled history essay in hand. He quietly urged me to give it another shot (i.e., “chin up”)—providing me with more opportunities to practice persuasive writing. I persisted. And I raised my grade. More importantly, I learned how to think critically and communicate more effectively in writing.
Classic learning theories suggest that we are regularly reconstructing our “schemas” (or ways of thinking) to accommodate new ideas, and yet our assessment systems don’t necessarily reflect this ongoing, formative nature of learning.
How are we providing open-ended opportunities for personal and academic growth in our lessons? How are we structuring assessment so that our students can openly acknowledge their learning struggles, track their own progress, and note the ways in which their thinking changes and grows?
Researcher Tenelle Porter and her colleagues study classroom environments that promote intellectual humility and learning. They find teachers in intellectually humble classrooms value effort and persistence in process-based, strategy-focused feedback. They also model humility with a growth mindset, normalizing mistakes while promoting student participation.
5. Revel in awe: “This is amazing!”
My college biology teacher was absolutely fascinated by the inner workings of ant colonies. Me…not so much, but his gleeful sense of wonder lit up the lecture hall and sparked my interest.
Our classrooms come alive when we create spaces for meaningful exploration, whether our students are captivated by scientific discoveries (“big ideas”), fascinated by architecture or art (“visual design”), or moved by the “moral beauty” of an act of kindness they read about in literature.
Those are three examples of the eight wonders of awe that researcher Dacher Keltner describes in his new book Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life. “Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world,” he says, and studies find that awe promotes humility.
In fact, experiences of awe help us to see ourselves as part of a larger whole. Sensing our smallness is an expression of humility that compels us to know more.
That sense of wonder—joined with curiosity, playfulness, and persistence—can fuel true intellectual humility. As I continue to grow as an educator-human, I’m struck by the way these fundamental keys to learning and development all seem to support each other. They can help us to pause, reflect, and check ourselves, rather than accepting easy answers: Is this what I really believe? Is this the right next step? It’s questions like those that open spaces for meaningful learning.