When was the last time that you felt dumb? Really dumb? Felt that feeling in the pit of your stomach and that flush in your abdomen, that panic that rises as you think: “I don’t understand this and I am supposed to. Why am I such an idiot?”
The last time I felt this feeling was two weeks ago, in an Arabic language lesson. I love languages; I became fluent in Spanish in my 20s and have a (very) basic knowledge of French. I have always been told I have an aptitude for language learning and have believed it. That is, until I encountered Arabic. Arabic makes me feel stupid. It’s isn’t the language’s fault, of course. It’s a beautiful language — far more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, with its calligraphy and cadence — but it is confounding to me. It’s written from right to left. The alphabet is comprised of foreign symbols. There are sounds I am supposed to make, like the sound for the letter ح, that I don’t believe I will ever be able to make (for a tutorial on these Arabic sounds, click here). Not to mention that every country has its own dialect, slang, and sometimes even grammar, so often my Arabic teacher will ask questions like: “Do you want to say this the Syrian way, the Saudi way, or the classical way?”
In fact, two weeks ago, sitting over lunch with a friend, who has kindly offered to teach me a little Arabic as well, I had the panicked realization that none of it was sinking in. Nothing. From one day to the next, I’d forget everything I’d learned. I couldn’t get my head around the new sounds, the five ways of saying the same thing, the grammar, the formal and informal modes of expression for almost every interaction.
I felt (and feel) stupid. Really. The kind of stupid where you want to give up (Every day I think: “Shouldn’t I just buy that French Rosetta Stone and give up on this? Who am I kidding?”). The kind of stupid where I see the wall in front of me, see it getting higher, see no way through it and feel a sad, enervating defeat. I feel humbled in the worst possible way, a kind of flattened feeling. I think things like: I thought I was good at languages. I thought I was moderately intelligent; why is this so hard for me?
I will stop to point out the obvious now: I’m a teacher. I’m a teacher who believes to my core that Carol Dweck’s growth mindset work is spot on. I’m a teacher who has told kids (and believes) that there is no shame in challenging work and that we can never get better unless we fail often.
And still, I feel stupid.
If I scratch the surface of that feeling a little bit, though, I quickly reach the underlying emotion that’s really there beneath it: shame. I’m ashamed that I can’t learn the language better and worried about what others would think of me if they saw my progress (or lack thereof).
It’s the same feeling of shame I alluded to in this post about the stress and anxiety I felt while learning how to SCUBA dive.
It’s the same feeling of shame I experienced when taking an online Stanford MOOC this year for math teachers and parents, when I came across this problem:
A man is on a diet and goes into a shop to buy some turkey slices. He is given 3 slices which together weigh 1/3 of a pound, but his diet allows ¼ of a pound. How much of the 3 slices can he eat while staying true to his diet? Give an answer and briefly explain your reasoning.
I wrestled with the problem for a good number of minutes and estimated as best I could that the answer was close to two slices, but I knew it was not precise enough. I then hit play on the next clip to hear the instructor describe this as a typical fourth-grade math problem and cut to a clip of fourth graders discussing it in a classroom and solving it. Fourth graders! I burned with embarrassment, as I was once again reminded that the shiny image I have of myself — a reasonably capable person who has managed to get through college and graduate school without much trouble — is tarnished by a fourth-grade math problem.
But I have the benefit of some wisdom and experience as I approach my 40s to help me see that struggling with SCUBA calculations, a new language, or fourth-grade word problems isn’t that big of a deal. Neither my job, nor health, nor happiness depends on them.
K-12 students do not have this kind of perspective or wisdom. They have little or no world experience and often low or no self-confidence, especially during the teenage years when social pressure is at its highest. Imagine what a fourteen-year-old kid feels when she gets a series of Cs on her English papers despite trying as hard as she can every time, when I feel so much shame not being able to write a simple Arabic letter properly. For me, the stakes are very low. No one really has to know how badly I am progressing in my Arabic studies. It’s just for fun. I’m not applying to university based on my scores. I’d be mortified if I had a classroom of peers keeping tabs on my Arabic progress, asking what I got on every assessment. Or worse — a rank. I’d be terrified even to try.
So here is my challenge to you: do something this week that makes you feel dumb. It could be analyzing a Seamus Heaney poem; it could be doing these math problems; it could be salsa dancing. It could even be as simple as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Do it, and then share your experience. Post, tweet, and talk about it with everyone you know — especially young people. We need to show our children and students that we aren’t afraid of mistakes, that we are OK with not being the expert all the time, that novices serve a very important function on the path of learning. We have to model what we want them to achieve (trying, failing, trying again), or we run the risk of being frauds.
This is scary stuff. It’s not easy to feel incompetent. It’s not easy for me to put myself into situations that make me feel stupid. On many days, I’d prefer to give up on the Arabic and do something I was better and more comfortable with (e.g. French). Even though I know making mistakes literally makes me smarter, I still hate to make them. But we adults — especially educators — need to push ourselves off the cliff of comfort into the abyss of not knowing more often. This is not because it will make us better, smarter people (which it will), but rather we need to do it because it’s imperative to show young people that there is no shame in learning.