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Teaching Toward the Unknown

As part of HGSE's Teaching and Learning Week, Senior Lecturer Junlei Li was one of several faculty members who contributed essays about how we teach and learn.

When I was young, my parents awed me with stories about Newton, Curie, and Einstein. I remember asking, “But they discovered all the important stuff already, what is there left to do?” As a child who loved physics, it was hard to picture my place in that science.
When I started teaching in both K–12 and college classrooms, I struggled with helping students find a place in subject matters that already had a “mile-wide” knowledge base. Gradually, I looked for ways to teach toward and about the unknown. I tried to show that the unknown outweighed the known, especially in spaces where “the rubber meets the road.”  For example, we know much about the science of human development, but we are just beginning to figure out how to communicate and enact it to actually better the world. The same gap applies to areas from improving education to protecting the environment, advocating for justice and promoting peace.
One of my favorite teachers is Fred Rogers, the host of the PBS children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968–2001). He guided everything he produced with the conviction that “each and everyone of us longs to know that there’s something about us that’s worth giving.” In whatever roles the students occupy in the world, I would like them to know that we need them there, desperately. I hope that teaching toward the unknown help students feel welcomed, in addition to being awed, by their profession.

Junlei Li is the Saul Zaentz Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education