Ignorance is Bliss

“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 coAthenancepts 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.
    Image representing YouTube as depicted in Crun...

    Image via CrunchBase

    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.

  • Image representing iPhone as depicted in Crunc...

    Image via CrunchBase

    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.


Cool Tool of the Week: Your Phone (Part 1)

Having never been labeled an early adopter…or even an “on time” adopter, I have long been using my cell phone to, well, make phone calls.  Oh, sure, I have finally moved on to texting (never while driving!) and checking email.  And I am getting a little better about maintaining contact information. I have even learned how to snap a photo and, wonder of wonders, send it to another person’s phone.  However, I can honestly say that I have never played a certain game dealing with irritable fowl.  Just yesterday our IT superhero had to show me why I couldn’t get my ringer to come back on after I had silenced it.  I find myself handing the silly thing over to my son or my gal pal Kristy to make it behave when I’m frustrated with it.

However, a series of unfortunate events has given me both the time and the impetus to explore some of the cute but mysterious icons filling the tiny screen in my hand.  I was able to use the “Maps” app to navigate the NYC transit system and to guide me through the maze of streets once I left the subway.  I had made minimal use of the “Notes” tool in the past, but I have started using it to keep grocery lists, a Target list, a list of websites I want to peruse, a list of books I intend to read, and a recipe or two I want to try.  Cool.

My new favorite tool is “Reminders.”  This handy helper allows me to make a list of all the stuff I wanna, gotta, need to, absolutely must do.  Now for the good part:  There is a wee box beside each item on the list that I can check off when the deed is done!  Instant motivation.  As if that were not enough, I am rewarded with a running tally of the number of tasks completed.  Today it says “26 completed” for the whole world to see.  Go, Me!  The next time I open the list, the 4 items that I just checked (Gosh, how I love to do that) will have vanished in a satisfying “poof.”  Almost as good as a gold star.

As an anatomy teacher, I can use the list to help me remember things I need to take to class, things I need to restock in lab, things that need fixing in the lab, recommendations I have promised to write, items I have promised to post, and anything else I need to check on.  No more PostIts clinging…or not…to the front of my notebooks, my purse, and my desktop.  (Don’t worry, 3M, I still love those little guys.)

What are your favorite apps and tools for your phone?  How have you used them to make teaching a more pleasurable experience?

Coming Into the Office

It’s more edifying to come into a place that’s partly your own than to a place only belonging to someone else. Stereotypes of school can leave students with the perception of coming onto the institution’s turf. Further, though good lectures are stimulating, many classes are not designed on a lecture model, nor should all classes be. Where the aim is for students to acquire skills, only an active role by the student can bring that about. This is more obviously true teaching tennis, chess, or guitar. In those, an instructor who mostly lectures and shows training videos will hardly see progress in the learners. To improve, the learners must practice and produce.  So for example, when an academic skill is writing, students need to think of it as a skill to practice and make progress in.

It can also be helpful to take a further step and refer to the classroom as an office. Moving from the analogy of sports to the tone and ownership in a workplace can improve the setting for practice and production. That might sound strangely industry oriented. However, a production model puts the emphasis on quality parts produced in a timely manner for shipment to the customer. In a writing course, a theme is a product, and quality standards are set in place so that the provider (the student) can receive payment in the form of grades, from the customer, namely the instructor. I often say that if I’m the one at Kroger writing the check for ten crates of lettuce, and the truck only delivers five crates, no matter whether the reason is valid or not for half a shipment, the check can only be for five crates.

Now that the skill mentality and production model are in place, the next emphasis is the pleasant one of introducing a student’s seat in the computer lab as that student’s “cubicle.” It’s the student’s work place. As such, when no formal instruction is going on, the worker is free to act just like any office worker would, which means working, chatting with others, taking breaks, and generally doing what people in offices do. The student gets to think of the classroom not so much as a classroom but as an office where the worker comes in to get things done. Naturally, as the office manager (as well as tutor, coach, mentor, customer), the instructor keeps the office running smoothly and helps with production concerns.

The goal is to replace the perception of school that looks at it as coming into a class, sitting in someone else’s venue, and passively taking in knowledge. Instead, the onus on the instructor is to establish a good setting for practice and production. It is true that the school belongs to an institution and that instructors are responsible to manage and lead in the classroom; but unless the student gets a feel for school that mirrors the workforce, classes heavy on learning skills can just seem like more of old stereotypes. The point isn’t to undermine authority but to include others in a mutually beneficial sense of how authority works best for everyone; and that can only happen as students gain a sense of being stakeholders.

Not everyone buys into it, but many do, and for those who don’t, they may later look back and reflect on how school and the workforce are alike really at core. As always too, it is helpful when the office manager communicates a sense of still improving his or her own practice skills and production. Some of my best mentors used to say, “You go to school to prepare for a lifetime of study, not to gain a fixed amount of knowledge and stop there.” That’s why I like the Latin phrase posted on speech teacher David Carter’s door—“ ancora imparo,” which means “I’m still learning.”