One day in the fifth grade, I asked my science teacher a question. The answer he gave me was one of the best answers I have ever heard. It has stayed with me —  and helped shape my vision of how education should be. 

I asked him why some of my toys glowed in the dark even though they did not have a battery. Initially he was silent. He grabbed his chin, looked up, then looked at me and said: “I don’t know.”

I. Don’t. Know.

I was shocked. I mean, he was the teacher. He was a superhero. He was supposed to know everything. His answer shattered me. 

But that was not all. Two days later, while I was in another class, my science teacher stopped by to talk to me. Out in the corridor, he gave me a detailed explanation about glowing objects and the principles and science behind them. I was amazed, not only by the explanation but also by the way he took time to research my inquiry. 

I felt I mattered. I felt learning was amazing. I felt it was an endless and thrilling process.

How to Handle Perpetual Change

That very simple concept helps to illustrate my own identity as a student, an educator, and a future leader. Why? Because education should not only be about knowledge but also about the process in which we acquire that knowledge. In other words, we not only have to learn, we need to learn how to learn. 

Learn to learn. That has been my educational philosophy all my life. 

The world is changing very fast. Not only technology changes. But systems, human relationships, traditions, everything is in a perpetual shifting state. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always changing. We need to learn new skills and methods to adapt, constantly. Much of the content I may successfully teach to a student may be obsolete or irrelevant in a couple of years. 

I am not saying that content is not important, but it should not be the center of my teaching practice. The center should be, instead, how to foster a growth mindset. One in which reflection and questions — about what I know, what I don’t, what I wish to know and how to know it — are always present. 

Taking Time for Questions and Reflections

My recent experience at Columbia reinforced the importance of perpetual learning. On the first day of one of the courses I enjoyed the most (the one about how people learn), the professor said he had completely changed more than 50% of the syllabus over the past five years. Good, I thought. It showed me that the things we were going to learn, discuss, and debate in that course were up to date. Relevant.

But an updated syllabus was not the only thing we got. The course itself was a praise to perpetual learning. Questions. Questions. And more questions. Reflection. Reflection. And more reflection. I remember telling my wife in those first few weeks: “You won’t believe how little this guy teaches,” without realizing how much I was learning. 

The Lesson Goes On

Right now, I am in a classroom where half of the people are online. One of them, my friend Zaineb, has just asked the professor if they could meet in a Zoom breakout room.

The answer the professor gave her is one of the best answers I have ever heard: “I don’t know how to do that. But we will find a way.”