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How To Teach For Knowledge Through Humility

by Terry Heick

Humility is an interesting starting point for learning.

There is a tempting sense of empowerment in our current ‘age of information’ that can lead to a loss of reverence and even entitlement to ‘know things.’ If nothing else, modern technology access (in much of the world) has replaced subtlety with spectacle, and process with access.

A mind properly observant is also properly humble. In “A Native Hill,” among other ideas, Wendell Berry gets at the idea of humility and limits. Standing in the face of all that is unknown can either be overwhelming (and thus numbing) or illuminating (and thus invigorating). How would it change the learning process to start with a tone of humility?

To be self-aware in your own knowledge, and the limits of that knowledge? To clarify what can be known, and what cannot? To be able to match your understanding with an authentic and compelling need?

7 Ideas For Learning Through Humility

In your classroom, this might look like:

1. Analyze the theoretical limits of knowledge in general –epistemology, for example

2. Evaluate knowledge in terms of ‘degrees’

3. Concept-map existing (specific) knowledge and compare that to ‘possible knowledge’ (what is still unknown regarding that specific knowledge)

4. Document change in knowledge over time

5. Artfully demonstrate the relationship between the student (individually) and what’s being learned

6. Contextualize the knowledge–in a place, circumstance, chronology, etc.

7. Authentically demonstrate the utility of what’s being learned

8. Show patience for learning as a process and emphasize that process over learning objectives

9. Clearly value informed uncertainty over the apparent confidence of intellectual ‘stances’ or positions

10. Reward questions over answers and ongoing inquiry over ‘finished school work’

11. Develop a unit on ‘what we thought we knew at the time’ compared to, in hindsight, what wasn’t known or wasn’t known ‘well enough’

12. Analyze the causes and effects of ‘not knowing’ in a range of environments

13. Emphasize the fluidity of knowledge

14. Clarify the difference between vagueness/ambiguity compared to uncertainty/humility

15. Identify the best scale for the application of specific knowledge or skills

This idea is admittedly abstract and seemingly out-of-place in increasingly ‘research-based’ and ‘data-driven’ systems of learning, but that’s part of the allure I’d think.

*previously published at


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