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Productive stupidity

Do you ever feel stupid?

For some of us, the feeling can be a daily occurrence so I’ll re-phrase the question.

Do you ever feel stupid . . . on purpose?

Because if you haven’t purposefully gone out of your way to feel stupid, I’m gonna suggest that you’re not doing your job correctly. Give me a minute. It’ll make sense eventually.

I ran across an article last week that talked about the importance of being stupid while doing science research. The author describes how very bright science students, successful in high school and college, fail miserably in graduate programs. They’re used to memorizing the answers and acing the tests. When they have to generate their own questions and solve previously unsolved problems, they feel stupid and quit.

Basically the author says that being stupid is not necessarily a bad thing – he describes it as “productive stupidity”:

We don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about “relative stupidity,” in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t.

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time.

While the article is concerned with science students, I see a lot of parallels in history teachers. I think a lot of us did great in high school and college. We enjoy history so it was easy to memorize stuff and spit it back out. The problem is that when we get in the classroom, we stop learning.

As a group, it seems as if most social studies teachers don’t read history books. Don’t watch documentaries. Don’t take history classes. Don’t take advantage of free training and learning opportunities. And I think that we don’t because it can make us feel stupid.

My question is pretty simple:

Are you working to be productively stupid? Are you ignorant by choice?

Over the last year, I’ve had the chance to work with 40 middle school American history teachers in a Teaching American History project. There’s a lot of experience and content knowledge in the room. But they have all purposefully chosen to be a part of the project to learn more by being productively stupid.

They ask great questions. They struggle with problems. They share ideas. And by admitting that they are “stupid,” they are becoming smarter, better teachers of history.

It’s okay to be stupid. Admitting it is the first step to recovery.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Don Gifford #

    Great post! Of course I can’t really relate . . . I feel stupid all of the time. I do think we get comfortable with the level of what we know and can find other interests to take up our time and our energy. Thinking about things we don’t know is one thing, finding information that challenges what we think we do know is a whole different matter. Getting students to investigate what they think they know will always be a challenge.

    February 29, 2012
    • glennw #

      I got a text from my son the other day that included this sentence:

      “The pursuit of knowledge is less frustrating for me now than it is exciting.”

      As a freshman in college, away from rural, small town Kansas, he’s been lucky to have met some amazing instructors. And it didn’t say it in so many words but he is experiencing (maybe for the first time) productive stupidity. Learning for a reason. Questions he can’t figure out. Authentic problems that require collaboration and exploration.

      School like it’s meant to be. Learning as a positive experience rather than a drudgery. That’s the kind of educational experience that I want for every kid. And when we as teachers feel comfortable being “stupid” and model that for our students, everyone wins.

      Thanks for the comment!


      February 29, 2012

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