As a parent, I have encouraged my children to avoid using several words when they’re at home. The list includes the big curse words, the adverb “actually,” and the word “stupid.” That last word might surprise some readers, but if you’ve ever taught in a K-12 setting, you probably understand it. For a lot of the adolescents with whom I worked, everything was “stupid.” Doing homework was “stupid.” Rules were “stupid.” Using vector math was “stupid.” After hearing “that’s stupid” so often in my classroom, I decided I’d do my best to regulate the use of the word at home when I became a parent. I won’t say that it’s been 100% effective, but I don’t hear the word used that frequently by my children. I’ll claim that as a minor success.
But recently, I began to rethink this lexical prohibition. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I’m reading The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching by David Gooblar (2019) with some colleagues. The book is a great primer on the ins and outs of being an effective instructor in collegiate environments. In a chapter on emphasizing process in our classrooms, Gooblar encourages college instructors to “model stupidity.” The phrase is intended to serve as a guide when instructors don’t know the answer to a student’s question. Gooblar draws on a 2008 essay from the Journal of Cell Research which addresses the problem more directly. In the essay, the author, Martin Schwartz, writes:
“The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.“ (p. 1771)
That’s some pretty humbling and empowering stuff. Gooblar’s book includes another quote from Schwartz’s essay that honestly was the catalyst for this whole post and my reflection on my homegrown “stop the stupid” campaign. Schwartz writes:
“The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.” (p. 1771)
As I’ve been rethinking my ban on the word “stupid,” I reflected on what Schwartz and Gooblar are really asking us to do as teachers. They’re not prompting teachers to “be stupid” or even “model stupidity” (despite Gooblar’s direct use of the phrase). They’re encouraging us to model intellectual humility and curiosity. I would argue that we shouldn’t just apply these practices when encountering difficult student questions, but more regularly with our teaching in general. Think about it. We will all have lessons that don’t work the way we planned. We’ll all have semesters where our student evaluations are lower than we had expected. We will all have assessments where the students will underperform. Modeling intellectual humility and curiosity means that we need to explore all of the possible reasons and solutions for those situations, including our own instructional decisions. Embracing this mindset goes beyond “being stupid.” It means being pedagogically humble. And the more we embrace humility and curiosity about our teaching, the more likely we are to make “big discoveries” about what we’re capable of becoming as teachers.
So, for now, the ban on the word “stupid” has been reaffirmed at the homestead. I’m sure I’ll revisit this decision again down the road. But that comes with the territory.
Gooblar, D. (2019). The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching. Harvard University Press.
Schwartz, M. A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121(11), 1771-1771.