Teaching What You Don’t Know

I was talking about technology on the internet the other day. It’s a half-hearted pastime. I’m not at the top of my game, but I like listening to other people talk. And the topic turned to how we teach minors **ahem** children about technology.

Specifically, the question is: how much does a teacher need to know to teach about a specific technology? You could see the battle lines being drawn. On the one hand, there were people who felt that the teacher should know everything. And on the other hand, there were people who were frustrated that in a world where kids are taught so little about technology in the first place, that anyone would squash a willing teacher’s enthusiasm.

Full disclaimer: I know nothing about teaching. I know nothing about children. And what I know about technology? Well, all my best work is still on my development server.

Still, I was probably the first kid in my district to have a computer in front of me starting in kindergarten.

And that means I had a lot of teachers who…

Well, they understood that computers were the wave of the future, and they understood that kids should be learning technology…

But they didn’t actually know anything about technology.

So, computers were plugged in and turned on, and time on those computers? Well… There were five computers in the school (less than one per class), so go ahead and do the math. You had your hands on a keyboard, you knew the clock was ticking.

And, exactly what does a hundred and eighty-four year old Civil War veteran** teach kids about computers?

Well, back in the day, we got holiday-themed, pre-boxed lessons.

You got a handout with about a million lines of code typed on it.

And if you typed that code into the computer exactly as it was written (assuming there were no typos in the original) a recognizable, holiday-themed shape (Hearts, shamrocks, Christmas trees, etc) would appear on your computer screen.

There were exactly two possible grades: Perfect, and do it again. And what did you get wrong? Well, the teacher could see there wasn’t a recognizable, symmetrical heart.

And that was about it. She couldn’t narrow down the place where you made your mistake, so you’d go over the code line by line, looking for an error. If you asked for help, she’d stand over you, and read off the code, character by character, while you went over what was on the screen.

I left grade school typing 60 words a minute with 99% accuracy.

And computers–coding–well, that was about the last thing on the face of the earth that I ever wanted to do again.

I’d never gotten to the logical part of it, and I’d certainly never gotten to the creative part of it. Somehow, it never really clicked that I could do other things. The perfectionism and the rigidity of it overwhelmed me.

So, my thoughts on how to teach something you know nothing about?

  1. Tell the Truth: I don’t know much about this, but I’m going to give it my best shot because I think it’s important because… Did you think I believed my teacher was a computer genius? No? Well, the insecure authoritarian approach doesn’t work all that well. It keeps everybody from asking questions.
  2. Acknowledge Students’ Personal Motivations: If there’s something you want to do, let me know, and I’ll try to point you in the right direction. Because the truth? Nothing’s more frustrating than spending hours and hours drawing a heart that you wouldn’t have spent twenty seconds drawing with a pencil.
  3. Be Open to Two-Way Communication: What do you think? How could we change this? At some point, I did learn to recognize variables, and see patterns in the thinking. I got better at spotting those typos than the teacher.
  4. Encourage Experimentation: Why do you think that happened? Is there anything else you could do with it? If it didn’t go quite right, what did you learn?
  5. Know Where to Find The Answer: Go to the library. Ask Joe Smith. Try it and see what happens. You don’t know every detail of your preferred topics, either, so why respond differently just because you know less? What’s the name of Charlemagne’s horse? Look it up.
  6. Tell the Truth Again: I’m not an expert. Keep going. You can do more. You can go as far as you want to. Be honest with yourself. You may have taught them everything you know, but that’s not everything there is.

I hated coding. I’d learned that it was stressful, and time-consuming, with ridiculously disappointing results. I avoided it like the plague til graduation. I got back into it later, under my own steam and desperation, but that’s a story for another day.

**Teacher’s actual age and previous occupation may have been exaggerated.


  1. Reply

    There was a woman in my high school who was hired to teach English but, for one reason or another, she ended up teaching math instead. Apparently she was was teaching herself while also teaching her class, but she always managed to stay a few chapters ahead of the students. I didn’t find out about this until she was wrapping up her third year as a math teacher, and I’ve had enormous respect for her ever since. It takes enormous courage and dedication to make a situation like that work.

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