On Intellectual Humility

30 Dec 2017 5:00 PM | Anonymous

By Jane S. Halonen, Ph.D., University of West Florida

One of the most daunting prospects of assuming the role of the professor is the implicit expectation that your sturdy disciplinary expertise can be displayed (flaunted?) to justify the respect that the position deserves. This expectation is the basis for the very common experience of the imposter phenomenon that regularly attends how graduate students feel when they inherit teaching responsibilities and also influences how new professors feel when they grasp the full range of what they are expected to know and do.

Early in my teaching career (more than 35 years ago and prior to the instant answer culture enabled by the Internet), I had a brutal, humbling, and glorious experience that taught me a lot about true teaching expertise. I was teaching an introductory psychology course and was facing the content area I dreaded the most—sensation and perception. The truth is that all psychology professors have a specific “soft underbelly” of content in which they don’t feel entirely competent. Sensation and perception was definitely the most unsettling of the content areas I had to teach in introductory psychology.

I opened my class dedicated to sensation and perception with a standard gambit, “Do you have any questions about the reading you prepared for today?” Although that may not be the most stimulating way to start a class, I was surprised when a hand shot up. “Why do you see yourself upside down in a spoon?” asked the volunteer. I was flummoxed (I love that word and don't get to use it often enough…)! Not only could I not answer the question, I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon. I think I responded with a rather weak, “Do you?” I regained my composure as the students laughed, admitted sheepishly that I didn’t have the foggiest notion how to answer that question, but would find out before the next class.

I said, with no small amount of fear, “Any other questions?” Another student raised his hand, “Why do wagon wheels appear to be turning backward when you see them on film?” At least I recognized that observation was valid, but was clueless how to explain it. “Hmmm… again, I don’t know.” I repeated that this phenomenon would be added to my homework for the next class.

I inadvertently encouraged them to think of other gaps in my knowledge when I inquired, “Does anyone else wish to play ‘stump the prof?’” Five more unanswerable phenomena, and a great deal of good-natured laughter, emerged. At the conclusion of my class I had substantial homework that had to be done to salvage the potential damage done by my utter lack of expertise. I was feeling especially inept because my status as “all-knowing” clearly had come undone.

I dutifully did my homework and managed to deliver the requested content in the next class. Students visibly enjoyed the fact that I completed my homework and provided positive comments about how much they had enjoyed “stump the prof.” I began to rethink the experience and have extracted pedagogical lessons from that experience that have had a life-long impact:

Lesson #1. You won’t die if you say “I don’t know” to a class. And it is far better to confess ignorance in the interest of promoting healthy discussion than to try to bluff your way out of a potentially embarrassing situation.

Lesson #2. It is often not about the content, but the process. According to cognitive science, the minute details of convex spoon reflection or optical processing times are going to be forgotten by most students shortly after the course ends. However, helping students engage in the spirit of inquiry should have a lasting effect on their ability to learn in the future.

Lesson #3. You can also learn from a missed opportunity. By focusing on delivering the right answer (the content), I missed the opportunity to have students think through their own ideas and hypotheses about what could account for the phenomena. Questions I can’t answer now become great teachable moments in which I invite students to generate their best ideas to improve their engagement and sharpen their critical thinking skills.

Lesson #4. Students are on your side. If you make a good faith effort and have established the right kind of atmosphere, students are not only forgiving, but they are supportive. The overwhelming majority of students want their professors to succeed so they can feel confident they have invested their time and money properly.

Lesson #5. Teachable moments are just as important for teachers as students. Choosing teaching as a profession offers endless opportunities for learning about the content, about the humans we serve, and about ourselves. Staying open to change—which can begin with a robust “I don’t know”—is one of the most important characteristics of truly effective teachers.

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