“And then I’d be smart.”

Today we were brainstorming ideas about electricity, practicing clarifying, and creating questions that start “What causes…”.  Some students are anxious about this, seem to fear that if they ask those questions, they will have to answer them.  My goal is for us to draw the boundaries of what we do and don’t know — not to get lost in some metaphysical endless loop.  Facing the giant pile of what we don’t know is hard sometimes.

I say “If it seems like we’ll never run out of questions, don’t worry.  We don’t have to answer those questions — we’re just keeping track of what we have and haven’t answered.  And anyway, if we ran out of questions, wouldn’t that be awful and boring?”

The answer from the back of the room is, “No, that would be great.  And then I’d be smart.”

What’s my next move?


  1. Perhaps a little late, but the comeback is that smart people are the ones who asks questions no one has thought of before. Having answers to all the already known questions makes one educated, not smart. It is coming up with new questions (and trying to answer them) that is the hallmark of the smart people.

    • Not too late at all. This one comes up over and over. Maybe I’ll start a collection of responses from other people to post in the shop. Sometimes I think they see me as being harmlessly but profoundly confused about what school is all about…

  2. That’s a total invitation for mindset/talent/etc talk. People with fixed mindsets feel smart when they know the answer. People with growth mindsets feel smart when they didn’t know how to do something but, through a lot of work, they made progress.

    Anyway, what would that person do after knowing all the answers?

    • Hi Kelly, just noticed I hadn’t actually responded to this. Yes, mindset is the right tool for the job. I hate talking about it, though. Telling students to think differently doesn’t work for physics — they have to figure it out and change their minds themselves — and the same seems to hold true for mindsets. I wish I had better ideas of what students need to do to change their mindset, instead of me just lecturing them about it. Maybe a few semesters of SBG is the only antidote.

      • You’re totally right. It’s painful to watch people try to strong-arm students into being growth mindset—something I’ve witnessed a few times. They don’t have to change their mindsets, and that’s certainly not something we can demand that they do (and not only because demands won’t work). From what I understand of Dweck’s research, the most effective way of shifting people over toward a growth mindset is actually more about telling them how their brains work (that their brains grow and change as they practice, something different from what they’ve likely heard in school before about how your brain cells never grow back). Have you read The Talent Code? I think it talks about the brain in just the right way. I have students read it for their only summer homework for physics, then I just try to set them up for success in the way I’m running the class (SBG helps a lot). Then I try to get in lots of small, personal, out-of-class moments with students where I can make little nudges and questionings and pointings-out about how their practice is helping them, etc. It just takes a lot of time and patience and making things available. And, of course, it doesn’t work on everyone. So.

      • Talent Code is really great. I think Mindset is good for understanding the research, but not for changing people’s mindsets. I have had some success, though, with this article:
        I cut a bit of it (the parts that are mainly about really little kids) and gave the rest to my students a few years ago (before I’d read so many other of the talent/mindset/etc books). It made a big impression on a few of the kids who really saw themselves in the descriptions of the children in the article.

      • Thanks for the book recommendation — I’ve been hoping to find a reading that would work well for the students. Unfortunately, I find Dweck’s book a bit spread out — there was no single page or 2 that got across the message I was hoping for. I like your point about talking about the brain — something I need to do more of.

  3. My quick response when I read it was “let me know when you get there.”

    My more detailed response is “when you run out of questions, let me know if you feel smart”

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