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To Redesign an Education System, Start by Saying 'I Don't Know'

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This post is by Ryan MacDonald, Program Associate with the CCSSO's Innovation Lab Network.

I can remember sitting in my sophomore biology classroom, avoiding eye contact with the teacher, hoping she wouldn't call on me to answer a question about photosynthesis. I had no idea what the answer was--something about plants, maybe? But sure enough, Ms. Johnson locked onto me and asked, "Ryan, how about you?" I uttered a few "ummm"s to buy myself a few seconds, so I could come up with a vague answer that might convince her I understood. We've all had those moments in class, and we try hard to string together something to avoid embarrassment. But what's the problem with just admitting we don't know the answer to the question?  

It seems many of us have trouble with admitting "I don't know." In a 2003 study, more than 1,000 individuals were surveyed on a variety of topics; when given the option to admit "I don't know" in response to a question, 49 percent would instead give uninformed responses, and when "I don't know" wasn't given as an option, 95 percent gave uninformed responses. The study illustrates that it's hard for us to admit we don't know when not given the permission. But a central component to the learning process is embracing uncertainty and acknowledging what we don't know and taking the steps to find out. Learning provides us the tools to answer questions more authentically and with a deeper understanding of them.   

I've recently taken this advice and embraced the concept of "I don't know" in my own work. I'm leading work with states in Council of Chief State School Officers' (CCSSO) Innovation Lab Network (ILN) focused on building local capacity for personalized learning, but I admit I've never worked in a school system. I did not come to my role with extensive knowledge of the inner workings of a state education agency. I am embracing the things I still do not know and learning alongside educators and SEA staff. In the ILN, we've shifted our network orientation to embrace the questions we do not have the answers to yet. We've seen from research, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Early Progress: Interim Research on Personalized Learning and CCSSO's Advancing Equity through Personalized Learning, that we have some answers concerning the impact of and promise for personalized learning to support student success; however, there are still many unanswered questions that remain.

In order to assist states in pursuing answers to these questions, our team at the ILN adopted an inquiry-driven process for SEAs to investigate questions each state is struggling to answer, and we at the ILN design learning activities that will uncover needed information and evidence. In some ways, our ILN states are modeling the inquiry process that students in a personalized learning environment engage in--by setting intentional questions they want to learn more about, charting out on a learning agenda, and collecting information and artifacts to illustrate their learning. Then, states will move to build policies and practices informed by that learning. Our hope is that this process will help states implement high-quality personalized learning that expands access and opportunity.

The states in the ILN are leading by acknowledging that it is OK to say "I don't know," and committing themselves to finding the answers to ensure access to a high-quality education for each learner in their system. As states move to build student-centered learning systems, with a focus on personalized learning and deeper learning outcomes, it is important that each level of the system can acknowledge the unsolved questions they need to know more about and develop an inquiry process explore answers to those questions. As I mentioned earlier, we have seen early indicators that personalized learning is having an impact for students, but our systems and system leaders need to continue learning and improving. That is what innovation is all about. Educators and leaders in schools should continue to embrace a learning mentality to ensure they can implement quality personalized learning and model behaviors that inspire their students and educators.

As an example, imagine the doubt and fear an educator might feel heading into a classroom at the beginning of the year with thirty new students to teach. Each student comes to the classroom with unique strengths and challenges for learning, and it's an educator's job to ensure those students can learn and demonstrate their learning and growth over time. Many educators in student-centered learning environments tackle this challenge head-on with humility and courage by admitting they don't know the best way to teach each of the thirty students in that classroom. But I've met many educators who commit to learning alongside their students to learn their strengths, challenges, interests, and passions, to co-create a learning experience that is personalized and supportive of each student. These educators, like our state leaders, are encouraging thoughtful risk taking to ensure students embrace a learning mentality and know that it's ok to admit "I don't know." And instead of rattling off nonsense, as I did in my biology class, students are prepared to chart a journey that will help them discover the answers uncovered in learning.  

Learning is not something that stops after we leave school or receive a diploma; it is a skill--a mentality--that needs to be exercised constantly to understand problems in our life and work.  From students to teachers to SEA staff and right here at CCSSO, if each level of the system can put aside the instinct to provide answers,  and commit themselves to learning and uncover the truth to complex and difficult questions, we can only improve the system and ensure our students succeed.

 

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