Helping Students to Be Comfortable with NOT Knowing. [ACTIVITY]

As I continue to explore the role that student questioning can play in the classroom (see here and here), I learned an important lesson from Paul Bennett, the creative director at IDEO, a firm known for driving innovation.  Bennett — who is quoted in Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question — believes approaching challenges with intellectual vulnerability is essential to driving innovation:

“I position myself relentlessly as an idiot at IDEO and that’s not a negative, it’s a positive.  Because being comfortable with not knowing — that’s the first part of being able to question.”  

(Bennett as quoted in Berger, 2014, p. 80)

Bennett is right, isn’t he?  If we aren’t “comfortable with not knowing”, there’s no chance that we will ever truly embrace questioning because questioning is an inherently vulnerable act — particularly in environments where being successful is synonymous with “having the right answer.”

So I whipped up a handout that I plan to use whenever we are studying a new topic.  Check it out here:

Handout – Think, Pair, Square

The task is a simple one:  Students begin by thinking about our new concept alone for 2-3 minutes.  While working, they are asked to consider both what they already think they know about the topic that we are studying AND to pinpoint places where their notions might be flawed.

My goal is to emphasize that “being wrong” — particularly about a topic that is new to them — ISN’T something to fear and that it’s NOT a reflection of an individual’s intellectual ability or self-worth.  Instead, flawed notions are to be expected and embraced because they can become starting points for new discoveries.

Then, students meet with a partner to review their initial notions for 2-3 minutes.  During this conversation, students are encouraged to discuss their shared notions with one another — finding areas of overlap AND pointing out potential flaws in the initial thinking of their partners.  Again, the goal is to help my students to be “comfortable with not knowing” in front of their peers.

Finally, pairs of partners join together into thinking squares for a final 2-3 minute conversation centered around spotlighting gaps in student knowledge that are worth wrestling with.  My hope is that after thinking alone and then with a partner, students will have enough sense of what they DON’T know to develop a few interesting questions together.

So whaddya’ think of this activity?  Is it something you’d use as is?  How would you change it?  


Related Radical Reads:

Where Have All the Beautiful Questions Gone?

More on Student Questioning in the Classroom

How Testing will Change What I Teach Next Year


Related categories: ,
  • John

    Great Activity

    This kind of activity should be present in all schools.  Forcing kids to struggle IS learning.  Great work and thanks for sharing your recipe with everyone.  That is what we need more of in instruction.  It raises the challenge as well as the depth of knowledge.

  • Elisa Waingort


    Hi Bill, 

    This is a great idea! I think we often assume that kids know how to ask questions and/or that they feel comfortable doing so in front of their peers. I think, though, the entire process, as you describe it here, might take more than 10 minutes or so, at least with the group of students I have this year. I think that by leading them into questioning in this way you will get more and better questions. BTW, the book you refer to above is on my to-read and review pile. I pulled it out a few days ago because my teaching partner and I want our 6th graders to do research around the topic of ancient civilizations. Your handout will come in handy in this process. Thanks for sharing. 

  • Deb Teitelbaum


    I like the technique, Bill.  If I were using it in my class, I might ask the students to write their initial thoughts–nothing too formal; bullet points are fine.  This fulfills two functions: 1) It prevents students from completely piggy-backing on their partners; They have to have something written down before they confer; and 2) It provides a “prop” for students who become tongue-tied when asked to share.

    I have recently begun using an outstanding book caled Making Thinking Visible (three authors, and I can’t remember any of their names).  It is full of strategies, much like think-pair-square, that encourage students to think more deeply about topics and also provides a means for teachers to see what their thinking is and, therefore, teach more effectively.  I think you’d like it.


  • ReneeMoore

    Concept of Flawed Thinking

    I’m studying your handout, and I’m wondering how do your students come to understand the concept of “flawed thinking”? Do you give them examples of what that might mean in the context of the new topic?

    Overall, I think this is a great approach to getting our students back to a place of natural curiosity that we seem to have schooled out of them over the years.