Responding to Student Questions When You Don’t Know the Answer

In a 2008 essay that was published in the Journal of Cell Science author Martin Schwartz writes of the “importance of stupidity” when doing research in the sciences. Schwartz argues that during his graduate research in the sciences, “the crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite.”

As an assistant professor at an undergraduate college that encourages student research, I’ve wondered whether I should be conveying the sense of vastness regarding what I do not know. Or putting the question more bluntly, how candid should I be about my own lack of knowledge within my discipline?

Schwartz persuaded me that if we do not take seriously the task of modeling this candid sense of what “I don’t know” (what he calls “stupidity”), then students will miss a big portion of what scientists call “doing science” and others might call discovery. Although he is writing primarily for a graduate-level audience, a similar perspective exists for teacher-scholars at undergraduate institutions.

For example, I recently taught our upper-level astrophysics course and my research background is in galaxy environments and evolution. When pressed on my knowledge of interacting binary systems with black holes, I was stretched to the limit. As questions arose within class about the topic, I responded, albeit uncomfortably, “Well, that’s a good question, but I don’t know the answer.”

However, that admission enabled students to witness the research process and the modeling of what Schwartz refers to as “productive stupidity.” By voluntarily admitting that I did not know but would like to find the answers, I was able to demonstrate to the students how to search the archives of the Annual Review in Astronomy and Astrophysics, locate and retrieve relevant titles, and scour an article for pertinent graphical and textual information. What resulted from our inquiry were some answers, but more important, a discovery of more rich and well-informed questions. Once I got over my fear of “looking stupid,” students were freed to delve into the act of research and discovery. That doesn’t happen when teachers proclaim to know all the answers.

The idea of modeling stupidity does not apply only to the sciences. In fact, all academic disciplines submit themselves to a kind of scientific process, where ideas are put forth, research is conducted, and modifications to those ideas are made as a result of what emerges from the research.

Traditionally, the professor is viewed as an exalted learner, the all-knowing sage, or a fountain from which the students are to come and drink. In contrast, “modeling stupidity” presents students with a real picture of how we all acquire knowledge.

Yes, this model raises troubling questions, among them, “What if my students (and/or colleagues) think that I’m not qualified to teach?” That thought is especially frightening for those not yet tenured. But I have to say the fear of inadequacy revealed by the question does impede the important task of modeling stupidity. Although these opportunities arise more frequently in research and independent study settings with our majors, we do a disservice to the everyday students in our general education courses when we fail to approach them with the same candor and honesty.

We must remember that we are not merely transferring knowledge about our disciplines; more important, our teaching models the correct and incorrect ways to approach learning and knowledge acquisition. If our students do not witness our own courageous modeling of stupidity, how will they ever find courage within themselves to do the same?

Excerpted from Modeling Stupidity, The Teaching Professor, vol. 23, no. 8.