Seth Godin published a great blog titled “Ashamed to not Know” (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2012/03/ashamed-to-not-know.html). In it he points out that “society changes when we change what we’re embarrassed about.” It is now shameful to be a racist in public. The question is “how long before we will be ashamed at being uninformed, at spouting pseudoscience, at believing thin propaganda?”
The trouble with many students today seems to be that they have no shame at all about their ignorance. In fact, many seem to wear it as a badge of honor. “Of course we don’t know about American history, geography, basic mathematics, statistics, or science,” they seem to be saying. “So what?”
Their peers don’t seem to pressure them to learn either. Given this, it’s difficult to convince them that there are good reasons to learn the subjects they are being taught. If the only ones sending them the message that it’s important to learn are their elders many will not be inspired and motivated to learn.
In my own case I remember thinking, as I first stepped into a college classroom, that what I would now be learning was important and mattered in a way that what I learned in high school didn't. I cared what I learned about and whether I was learning it. But, students really need to care about what they’re learning well before they get to a college campus. We need to begin early and cultivate their caring as an ongoing process.
How can we do that? I think it begins with a few simple components:
Lead by Example: The adults in a student’s life have to care about learning and show this. This means their parents, their friends’ parents, and of course, their teachers. Young children need to be introduced to adults who have an interest in learning about lots of different things and they need to be shown that this is an important part of adult life. Simply telling them to care about learning without leading by example won’t cut it.
Explain: While showing is important, articulating why you should care about learning is also important. Provide reasons and talk about them in the context of learning and do this often and consistently.
Show that It’s OK to not know: But, then give them the tools to find out and learn. We can’t know everything and children quickly learn that the adults in their life aren't omniscient. This is OK as long as you then provide a way to learn what you don’t know and show that you care about doing so. You don’t have to learn everything but if you provide the tools for children to learn on their own and encourage them to do so you will be providing them a set of skills they will value and use throughout their life.
Care has to be cultivated and encouraged. It takes time, conversation, and starts with caring on your part. I suspect it also contains a small amount of shame. Being ashamed to not know and then acting on this. As Alain de Botton pointed out “Anyone who isn't embarrassed of who they were last year probably isn't learning enough.”
If you are not ashamed to not know some things, your children and students will never be inspired to learn. What are you ashamed to not know?