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To Revive Education, Teach the Unknown

In a profoundly shifting world, let's change how we talk with kids.

Key points

  • To shift education profoundly, start with what we don't know.
  • Talk with kids about big questions to promote curiosity.
  • Bring the cutting edge to the start of the learning process.
Meri Verbina
Traditional education often promotes boredom
Source: Meri Verbina

“Did you know that about 96% of the universe is made of stuff we can’t even see or feel—and that we know almost nothing about?”

When I first heard this idea as an adult, I was fascinated. But as a high school student, I never cared about physics. I remember lots of boredom and lots of tests.

The same goes for many students I’ve worked with. Ask most elementary school students what they know about astronomy, geography, or the original 13 colonies, and you’re likely to hear similar responses. “The Earth rotates around the sun,” a student might tell you, or “there are eight planets.” In geography, they might tell you about erosion or landmarks, and in the colonies, they might tell you about George Washington. The specific responses might be different—but they’ll all attempt to give you a series of facts.

Typically, we are looking for this type of information—a check-in—when we ask these questions. This also is how teachers usually teach, starting with the basic facts and overall outline of a subject, then getting more nuanced.

“Sure,” you might say, “so what’s the problem?”

Traditional education often promotes boredom

When we start with the basics and build up, we’re assuming students need to accumulate knowledge gradually, from the ground up. This often puts learning into silos, so students learn about each subject separately. Theme-based and project-based learning attempt to work against this siloing through taking interdisciplinary approaches. Yet, in a profoundly shifting world, it’s not enough.

We need to help kids care about what they learn. Accumulating facts doesn’t let students feel energized, and it doesn’t lend itself to energizing teaching methods. If we want to nurture children’s lifelong curiosity, why not start with questions, which we know motivate children starting at the very youngest ages?

We're not promoting deeper learning

A national study done in 2023 showed students’ learning has slowed as compared to pre-pandemic. To support students in learning math and reading, we need to ground them in interesting questions and richer content. We’re at a time when we desperately need to help students with more conceptual learning instead of focusing purely on rote facts.

My own childhood and work as a speech-language pathologist and Harvard lecturer have inspired me to ask how this might be different. Try this thought experiment: instead of talking with kids about all we know, when we introduce subjects, why not start with everything we don’t know?

Start with the unknown to turbocharge learning

Source: Lucas Pezeta/Pexels
Starting with the unknown lets us wonder together.
Source: Lucas Pezeta/Pexels

What if, for instance, even with young kids, we started with the big ideas, and with questions that experts in the field are still wrestling with? What if we laid out the big questions we don’t have the answers to, and let them know what methods experts are trying to use to solve them—not at the end of their educational journeys, but at the start? What if we introduced new subjects this way?

For example, you might teach even children as young as kindergarten about dark matter, in the case of astronomy, or about whether a newly-discovered animal is the same species or a different species as a different one. Or we might ask questions like, when learning about materials science, “What is matter made of?” or “What exists between a liquid and a solid?” When learning about biology, we might ask, “What does it really mean to see color?” or “Can we ever really know what another person thinks?”

Relatedly, kids might learn about politics by hearing of one of the "micro-nations” trying to create their own governments, asking: “What makes a country? What kind of laws or rules, or what kind of understanding, is the bare minimum?”

It's not as wild as it sounds

This might sound far-fetched, but done well, it doesn’t have to be as far-fetched as you think. It relates deeply to the “big ideas” approach of Understanding By Design, an approach that emphasizes starting academic courses with a big idea or major conceptual understanding, and working backward to get to the other pieces of the idea.

These big ideas can profoundly help in integrating ideas from different fields, since it starts with an idea that likely crosses disciplinary bounds. It also supports students to be more engaged, since learning is grounded in a deeper “why.”

But while those “big ideas” emphasize those bigger concepts, and encourage instructors to ask “essential questions,” like “What is the value of studying X?” it doesn’t focus on those cutting-edge questions or all that’s still unknown.

By teaching the unknown, we go a step further, creating a profound shift from the traditional ways teachers teach and students learn. At home, we can take the same approach, starting not with the basics of a subject, but what excites us, what we’re wondering about; what we question, doubt, or are unsure about.

We need to set the foundation

Of course, making this happen would require changes in key areas, including teacher education. Before teachers could guide children through these unknowns, they’d need to understand them—or at least their outlines. Curricula and benchmarks would need to be revised to include this emphasis. Children’s books could be written and then updated with these key unknowns—a whole new area for children’s book authors to explore. I can imagine incredible picture books laying out major unknowns, then depicting visually questions such as “What is ‘stuff’ really made of at the smallest levels?”

Along the way, we explore what is known. We could also show all the exciting experiments underway: who’s working on those questions, what instruments we could use to answer them, and how all the questions are connected.

Still, we can’t underestimate how powerful this approach could be. In a world where students are often chronically absent and disengaged, we would do well to radically rethink teaching and learning. Let’s make education less robotic to help students feel more alive.

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