It’s Okay Not To Understand

Today I really experienced a “first” in my 12 year teaching career: students asked me a question, and I didn’t have a clue how to respond. Please don’t get me wrong. There’s many things that I don’t know, but usually I at least understand the basic content. I was completely stumped today.

We’re beginning a new unit in math on data management, and students were working on a graphing activity from Leaps and Bounds: this math program that we’ve just started using in Grade 6. I was working with a guided math group at the back of the room, and the rest of the students were spread out at the desks. All of a sudden, we get to this stem and leaf plot question, and one of the students in my guided group explains to me that he’s confused. I have a look. I don’t understand it at all.

When I planned the activity, I looked at stem and leaf plots, and to me, they looked like line plots. I didn’t think much of them. Today, I really needed to examine the data though, and I was stumped. What did all of these numbers mean? Nothing seemed to add up correctly. As far as I was concerned, I was staring at a bunch of random numbers, and I needed to try and make sense of them.

I explain to this student in my group that I’m confused, and then the student at the table group in front of me hears this, and he expresses his confusion as well. This leads to a chorus of students that are all struggling with this concept. I think to myself, I guess this is time for some problem solving. One of my students goes to grab an iPad, and we’re about to start a Google search, when I decide to ask, does anyone in the class understand stem and leaf plots? A couple of hands go up, and so I decide to try something new. I ask a student to teach the class (and also teach me) about stem and leaf plots.

Here’s a video of her lesson:

At the end of the lesson, not only do I understand what stem and leaf plots are, how to create them, and how to read them, but the students in the class do as well. This student got a leadership opportunity, and I got the opportunity to show my students that teachers don’t know it all. 

An amazing thing happened after this as well: students that are usually reluctant to ask for help, came to tell me what they don’t know. They saw that it’s okay to admit when you’re struggling, and that together, we can learn something new. What a great lesson for all of us!

Has this ever happened to you before? What stories can you share? Today reminded me that it’s okay not to understand.


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