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Tackling the Know-It-All Problem: Listen, Learn, and Lean In

By Marcia Powell — November 29, 2017 5 min read
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Quick, name a famous know-it-all. Depending on your age, Homer Simpson, Hermione Granger, Spock, or the mailman from “Cheers” might have crossed your mind. As TV tropes and psychologists suggest, a know-it-all is someone who shuts down new information from others and leans into preconceived ideas. It is hard for him or her to adapt to new ways of doing things. And teachers are not immune to the know-it-all syndrome. We often double down against changes in approach because we want to appear as though we have everything under control. We might even know what we are doing is ineffective.

Donald Rumsfeld, a former U.S. secretary of defense, is known for a quote that summarizes the complexities of teaching well, although he wasn’t talking about teaching at the time:

“As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Professional development should be designed to help teachers learn to identify the unknowns to create a better classroom for students."

Not knowing what we don’t know is a huge issue. But what’s almost worse is not admitting what we don’t know—it means we have some combination of ignorance, hubris, or naiveté.

I’m embarrassed to say that early in my career, I fought against the idea of competency-based teaching and learning—giving students opportunities to be reassessed on material they had not yet mastered. My focus (and that of my peers) was on the single test created by the textbook experts, in part because we lacked access to experts and research in that area. We didn’t know what we didn’t know about formative and summative assessment, so we took the safe route.

It is easy to become overwhelmed with new innovations and constant change. But our students’ learning is affected by these “unknown unknowns.” That’s why professional development should be designed to help teachers learn to identify the unknowns to create a better classroom for students.

Here’s a know-it-all gut check to try for yourself: Make a T-chart. In the first column, make a list of supports, innovations, and ideas that were buzzwords when you started teaching. In the second, consider the pedagogy and societal changes that have happened in the past five years of your classroom experience.

This is mine:


See any stark differences between your own first and second columns? The structure of school should be changing because important methods and issues that were once unknown (for example, trauma-informed teaching and social-media’s impact on students) have been uncovered—becoming, in Rumsfeld’s language, known unknowns. That pesky know-it-all attitude can derail such attempts at change, but becoming comfortable with the status quo does not move education forward.

In my experience, teachers can counter such attitudes with three basic strategies: listening, learning, and leaning in.

Listen to students and colleagues. This requires an open mind and is the first step to uncovering unknowns. Wisdom and ideas can be gained from both groups of individuals, and respectful interaction builds a learning community, rather than a classroom of compliance. In addition to uncovering our own personal biases, we will be privileged to have multiple lenses to analyze a concept or learning strategy. Struggling to value others, whether students or colleagues, is often a sign of a know-it-all threatened by new knowledge.

Sample Application: More and more schools, including my own, are putting together senior seminar capstones for high school students—projects that allow them to showcase their learning. Listening to and implementing student ideas can change communities and schools for the better.

Learn new ideas each day. Curiosity is what we hope to model for students, but we’re only human. We’ve all been in a meeting or training that we found pointless or poorly done. Not surprisingly, that fixed mindset will make learning prohibitive. Ideas that challenge the ‘way we’ve always done it’ can make our brains hurt, creating a tug-of-war of dissonance in our brains that can be tough to accept. To avoid a know-it-all attitude, consider suspending judgment on the new information and giving yourself the gift of time and reflection.

Sample Application: The bumpy rollout of the Common Core’s math standards indicated some strong pushback by those skeptical of the new teaching strategies. Sometimes know-it-all perspectives come from fear of trying something new. The goal of the new math approach was to teach students math understanding instead of math algorithms. Separate reports by Harvard University’s Center for Education Policy Research and the Brookings Institution have found that instructional techniques and NAEP scores both show the pushback was unwarranted, as the math standards have shifted student learning in a significant, positive way for both teachers and students.

Lean into change. When educators feel ownership in a true learning community, they are open and trusting enough of one another (and their administration) to comfortably lean into something new, even if it is difficult. Choosing to commit to new learning is a personal choice, but such willingness creates a culture where new innovations can succeed and work well.

Sample Application: Classroom-management strategies that effectively deal with issues of self-management and student trauma take extended effort by an entire school community. Social-emotional-learning standards such as CASEL’s can affect how teachers respond to student misbehavior, but these shifts need time and experimentation to gel. Emotional support and reflection by peers and administrators are critical in this endeavor, so a culture that can minimize know-it-all attitudes is key.

Expecting students to change and adapt in our classrooms, but not doing so ourselves, is a double standard that circles back to Rumsfeld’s quote. If we acknowledge that “there are things we now know that we don’t know,” can we match the expectations we have for our students to new ideas and concepts? Listening, openness to new learning, and a willingness to leaning in should be the expectation for all individuals in schools. In an education landscape working to build 21st century skills and positive school cultures, giving up the know-it-all outlook for good allows our students a better chance to succeed.


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