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Finding Value in Uncertainty: What Happens When the Tutor Doesn't Know

alesnick's picture

Lauren Dickey

 The author discusses about her experience in one of the Teaching and Learning Partnerships at Bryn Mawr. A great example to show that a mentor can learn and teach even when he doesn't know the correct answer.


Finding Value in Uncertainty: What Happens When the Tutor Doesn’t Know?
From my earliest stages of schooling, computers have been a part of my classroom and home environment. I feel comfortable using the computer, which gave me the confidence to work as a tutor in Computing I, a class on Bryn Mawr College’s campus that pairs Bryn Mawr and Haverford students like me with college staff members seeking help in understanding the foundations of computing. I expected to go into this tutoring partnership with a full grasp of the subject material, completely prepared to help my tutee learn whatever elementary computer skills she wanted to learn. I assumed that I needed to know what I was doing in order to best help my partner. Instead, I found that I learned much more about being an effective tutor in the instance where I was unsure of what to do.
            My tutoring partner is Joy[1], a housekeeper in one of the dorms. She and I meet an hour each week in a classroom setting with other staff members, students, and two student co-teachers. We also meet one on one for an additional hour. During this time Joy and I complete the homework for class and explore different areas of the computer and Internet that interest her. Joy’s plan for one of our one on one sessions was to remove pictures from her digital camera, store them on the computer, and then burn them from the computer onto a CD.
            During our session we went over safely handling and storing CDs and, using her camera cable, successfully copied the pictures from Joy’s camera onto the computer and the blank CD. The difficulty began when it was time to disconnect her camera cable from the computer. On my laptop I click on a specific button that safely ejects the camera so I can unplug it without damaging it. On the computer we were using, there was no such button. I did not want to damage her camera, so I began searching for an application called Device Manager, a tool for controlling any hardware, like camera cables or USB drives, attached to the computer. I could not find the application. I had suddenly exhausted the extent of my knowledge on the subject, leaving me—and Joy as well—unsure of what to do.
            At this moment I thought of my own methods for learning computing. Most of my skills came from experimentation on my own, not explicit instruction from any sort of tutor. If Joy and I were to learn how to safely disconnect her camera, we would need to learn through our own research and experimentation. Joy and I worked together searching the computer and the Internet for a helpful computer application or “how to” article. We finally learned that as long as the camera was turned off, it would be safe to remove from the computer. My experiences in that one meeting, when I could not simply tell my partner the steps to take to arrive at the desired result, helped me become a better tutor. Being in a situation of uncertainty proved to be a means of better connecting with Joy. During that lesson, we both become computing students. Exploring and questioning with Joy helped me to see what the partnership feels like from a different position. With this knowledge I can better accommodate her and prepare her to be a learner on the computer, even when I am not there to tutor her.
            In my tutoring relationship with Joy, she and I are both learning. While she gains a basic computer literacy, I am “learning to learn through learning to teach”[2]. I examine how Joy learns, thus thinking about the best way to teach to her. In her article “Advice for Teaching Hands-On Computer Classes to Adult Professionals,” Linda Masek writes that teachers in these kinds of positions must “have patience in limitless quantities.”[3] Having patience for students acquiring an understanding of something completely new can be difficult when the tutor has a good grasp on the subject. Teaching beginning level information without speaking or acting in a condescending way to the tutee is one of the first goals for a tutor in such a position. Being in a situation where the tutor does not know the answer is a valuable moment for the tutor in that it reminds him or her what it feels like to be in the learner’s place. This experience may especially help those tutors frustrated to the point where the tutees feel the effects of the frustration. Tutors must remember to not “talk down, especially to adult professionals. A condescending teacher risks instant resentment, which is obviously a barrier of learning.”[4] Being in a state of not knowing helps the tutor to realize that though he she has knowledge in the area, he or she is not finished learning about computers and will never be. Improving their computing skills is a common goal for both tutor and tutee. There is no reason for either to discourage the other.
            Both partners making mistakes, not knowing what to do, can bring the partners together. The tutee seeing his or her tutor struggle with a challenge illustrates a common aspect of both of their experiences. Both people in the tutoring group face obstacles that can be overcome. This is why Masek emphasizes, “If you make a mistake, say so! Never try to fake anything.” [5] The tutor’s not knowing the answer is too valuable a learning experience to pretend it is not happening. Sharing this information fosters an open, honest relationship between tutor and tutee. It also provides for the tutee a model of the steps to take when uncertain of what to do.
            When I did not know how to disconnect her camera from the computer, Joy saw me search through the computer for applications that might help, and then she saw me go online and enter a couple combinations of terms into a search engine, hoping to find a reliable looking website that could offer help in terms I understand. I told Joy that this is a good step to take when she does not know what to do and does not have a tutor on hand. She can use what she knows to figure out how to best find the support and resources she needs. She does not have to depend on me. Our time with the camera became a lesson on how to independently find the answers to computing questions. As Eleanor Duckworth writes in her essay The Virtues of Not Knowing, “the virtues involved in not knowing are the ones that really count in the long run. What do you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will ultimately know.”[6] Not knowing the answer in general prompts a learner to know where to look to find an answer. For a learner to know that she has the resources to answer her own questions is a very empowering thing. It grants the learner independence, encouraging her to value her own reasoning and problem solving skills. She can rely on herself to know where to go to get a little extra support. She has the power to guide her own learning.
            Joy was not the only person empowered during that lesson. Being able to still help my partner, even when I did not know what to do, opens for me the range of material that I can teach. When I first agreed to participate in this project, I wanted to mentor in Computing I because I imagined that I would be completely comfortable with the material. Computing II and Computing III, other options, were not my first choices because I pictured myself at a loss for what to teach in some of the subject areas. Now that I have practical experience that exemplifies how not knowing exactly what to do can make me a more effective mentor, I hope to feel less limited in what I attempt to teach. I do not have to be an expert in an area—I have to be willing to learn alongside my students and admit when I do not understand. As a teacher, I am a learner as well. Like my students, I will need to know what resources are available for when I am unsure. There is nothing more empowering to me as a lifelong learner than knowing I can work around my own uncertainties.

[1] All names have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect privacy
[2] Gardner, Allen, Mary Conway Kohler, and Frank Reissman. Children Teach Children: Learning by Teaching. (New York: Harper and Row, 1971.) 77
[3] Masek, Linda E. “Advice for Teaching Hands-On Computer Classes to Adult Professionals.” Computers in Libraries 20.3 (2000): 32-36. 36
[4] Masek. 36
[5] Masek. 36
[6] Duckworth, Eleanor. “The Virtues of Not Knowing.” “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. 2nd Ed. (New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1996. 64-69.) 64



Riley Diffenderfer's picture

I can't agree more with how

I can't agree more with how important it is to be honest with a tutee about your own limitations. Not only does this honesty help to level a relationship between tutor and tutee, which can sometimes be uncomfortable in the lack of reciprocity, but it also helps provide a way for the pair to share a connection outside of the context of what is being learned--a possibility to create a personal connection that makes the tutoring relationship less forced, and more amiable/meaningful for both.
I find many connections between this essay and Grace Kung's "The Ultimate Cross-Cultural Mentoring Partnership Challenge," because she also mentions the importance of accepting these moments like the one when searching for a way to safely disconnect the camera--not necessarily as awkward, but as possibilities to forge human connection on the common ground of making mistakes and continually learning, despite level of education or assumed knowledge on a topic.