The Certainty of Doubt

I thought after twenty-five years of planning for teaching, I’d be better at it. Not better really, just more adept. More proficient.  My teaching life has been a quest for smooth expertise in thought and action.  Then every August, I find myself stumbling over what to teach, how to teach, how to even start. This year was no different. The inner conversation went, “Why isn’t this second nature by now? Why am I not more efficient?  Why do I keep changing things? Do I not have a first day plan somewhere that I can just use?”

I gained a bit of personal insight after coming across this quote by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli: “The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.”

When I stand back, I see what is happening: With new research comes the unwieldy challenge of aligning one’s lessons with evolving understandings. Experience brings a wider perspective, more questions, and ultimately, more options.

So while my theoretical brain is having an “aha” moment,   my practical brain says, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but you need to get some lesson plans together.” (See, this no-nonsense side knows that the theoretical me believes that by merely thinking about something, it will get done.  In fact, it is always a little shocked that thought processes alone have not produced more results.)

While I could be feeling somewhat chagrined by my slow progress, I think I speak for all teachers when I say that the job of putting theory into practice is much more easily said than done.  No one has the time to make every moment of every day a stunning learning experience.

For most of my career, I have worried about having the answers. I find comfort in the musings of Rachel Remen, a physician who focuses on “integrative medicine.” She says that “living well is not about having all the answers; it is about the opportunity to pursue unanswerable questions in good company.” If I had to make a goal for this year, that would be it.

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8 thoughts on “The Certainty of Doubt

  1. Expertise is the constant pursuit of getting better at something or attempting to meet some challenge. Like infinity you just get a bit closer and then there is another number between that and on and on. Expert teachers live on the edge of their expertise while others may be happy to conform just to the things they know how to do – that to me would be boring and for most of us not too satisfying. You were always a “stretcher” for me Twila and a top notch role model. My IQ was raised by being associated with you. I wish I could clone you.

  2. Twila, your post is great … and Peter, your comment made my heart so warm.

    ‘My IQ was raised by being associated with you. I wish I could clone you.”

    That is as good as it gets.

  3. I am with in you in the fluidity required of our circumstances and the want of assurances. I came across a great Timothy Leary quote yesterday,’You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.’ Guessing I am about six like Christopher Robin
    Sooz

  4. “Expert teachers live on the edge of their expertise.”

    Yes, and being on the edge of anything is exciting but can also be a little uncomfortable.

  5. It is so good to hear your voice again. I know I’m just reading your words, but I feel as though I’m actually listening to you speak. As always with your writing, this post is funny, “right on,” forgiving, and wise–just what we need as we take up our awesome and overwhelming responsibilities again. Thanks for taking the time to write in the first busy week of school–I sure appreciate it.

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