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The Less You Know

How struggling can help you learn

Today, we’ve asked Tenelle Porter to share her Tip of the Week. 

If I had a plan for doing well in seventh grade, it was this: memorize and regurgitate. 

But my English teacher, Mr. Gibbons, wasn’t very cooperative. He would assign an Emily Dickinson poem and ask the class, “What does it mean?” I didn’t know the answer, and he wouldn’t feed it to us. He would wrinkle his brow and say, “Hmmm,” like he was wondering what the poem meant, too. 

After a while, my classmates and I began asking questions. Over time, we got to practice figuring things out rather than just reciting what we had been told.

Research shows that creating a learning culture, like Mr. Gibbons did for my class, can help middle schoolers grapple with what they don’t understand and grow as a result.  

What are the hallmarks of learning cultures? They value intellectual humility and curiosity. They put understanding above getting a top grade, feeling comfortable, or looking smart. 

In the research study, teachers who created learning cultures were more likely to have students who, at the end of the school year, could admit what they didn’t know—they grew in intellectual humility. And the effects lasted beyond that year and into the next. This means that learning cultures didn’t just change students in the moment—they changed them in the long run. 

Why is it important to have intellectual humility? Students who are unembarrassed to reveal when they’re confused tend to be more persistent and show more resilience. They’re also more tolerant of people with views that differ from their own and resist either/or thinking—something most of us are trying to work on and practice. 

Don’t ask only easy questions or rush to give answers.

Do create a learning culture in your family or classroom. At dinner, talk about something new you learned today. At school, encourage students to show what they don’t know (yet). After all, you can’t learn what you already know.

With humility and gratitude,


Tenelle Porter is an assistant professor of psychology at Rowan University, where she studies intellectual humility, motivation, and learning.