paul le

When Teachers are Wrong

Sooner or later, we all eventually realize that teachers are not the all-knowing, omnipotent beings we once thought they were.

When we were younger, teachers were the ones many of us turned to for answers. For some, a teacher’s word held more weight than even their own parents’. But somewhere along the way of growing up, we eventually realize that teachers are not always right.

A young boy standing in front of a chalkboard with several math equations from Death to Stock

This realization may come early on, but for many, this happens most notably in high school — the rebellious years — where many students question the utility of what they are learning in school.

I don’t exactly recall any particular moment when this happened for me personally, but by the time I was in high school, I think I had an intuitive sense that teachers can make mistakes too. They are, after all, normal human beings, just like everyone else.

The first time that this really hit me, was when I was in my first year of university, taking a class on calculus. My professor always had a habit of saying that she “was not very good at arithmetic”, whenever she was performing examples on the board, and that everyone should verify that her calculated answers on the board actually made sense before trusting them.

This was really interesting to me, and I really appreciated how open and honest she was about her perceived weakness. I highly doubt that meant she was not good at mathematics, as she did her undergraduate and PhD degrees at Princeton and Oxford, respectively. She was also already a tenured professor at my university at a young age — a very accomplished academic by many standards.

What is a Teacher’s Job?

I remember sitting in that same calculus class every morning, and hearing some of my peers making remarks about the professor, such as, “if you’re so bad at arithmetic, then why are you teaching us calculus” (to their friends, of course).

For many, teachers are still expected to be the all-knowing beings we grew up expecting them to be, and when they do not meet this expectation, students become indignant. To them, teachers are there to provide the right answers, so that students may pass or do well on tests and examinations. In many cases, that is all that the student cares about.

But is this what the teacher’s job is truly about? Giving the right answers? Is education all about learning facts so that one may pass an exam?

I don’t think so.

A teacher’s job is not to know all of the facts, and education is not only about knowing facts. Education should be about cultivating a learner’s mindset — one that is able to creatively solve problems, and to think critically.

Teachers are there to show us how to approach questions that we know how to solve, using methods that have so far worked for us. Eventually, if students decide to pursue higher-education beyond high school, teachers are there to show us how to best approach questions that do not have answers yet — or may never even have answers to begin with — and to guide us in someday finding new answers. This is what a curriculum is for.

A teacher’s inability to know everything is not a weakness. Instead, learning to appreciate this human quality, combined with cultivating the desire to discover, learn, and rethink, is a strength that should be the focus of education. It is something that is ubiquitous in academia, that great teachers try their best to instill in their students.

What is the Purpose of Education?

Using the example of my mathematics professor, instead of focusing so much on the computational side of mathematics — which nowadays, computers can easily do for us — we should be focusing on how to creatively approach and solve problems. We need to learn how to check that the answers we get actually make sense, instead of just blindly solving problems and accepting whatever answers we get. This is what we would call critical thinking.

This applies not only to quantitative subjects such as mathematics or physics, but also to the humanities, and the social sciences. With information so readily available to us through the internet, it is easy to be fooled by someone’s opinion that they state as fact. Like the mathematics or physics student who has to recognize that certain answers don’t make logical sense, humanities students must be able to critically analyze works, and determine themselves whether an argument is valid. The focus should not be on memorizing facts about essays and various works, but rather, on being able to read a piece of literature, and to think critically about what the author is trying to convey.

This is all especially true as we grow from being children who see a small world where every question has an single, correct answer that can be memorized and instantly regurgitated, to a more complicated world where many questions do not have answers yet, or have many answers that are both right and wrong depending on which perspective it is seem from.

I think something that many students eventually realize as they continue their academic career is that after a certain point, the subjects that they are studying are no longer completely discovered or worked out yet.

For example, students studying for a bachelors in psychology start analyzing current research papers by the time they are in their third year, exploring topics that are actively being researched. Even for students studying for a bachelors in mathematics and physics (fields that have been around for a very long time), students get fairly close to the frontiers of knowledge if they take fourth year quantum mechanics or subatomic physics courses, for example.

The point of education, and the role that teachers play in education, I think, is not to always be right, or to always have the correct answers to every question memorized. Instead, it is to understand that not every question has an answer to begin with, or even a single answer. The point of education is to develop a paradigm of thinking of how to creatively approach problems, how to ask the right questions, and to always be open to new ideas — even if these new ideas mean admitting when one is wrong, and adopting a new idea.

May 19th, 2020