Why I Begin My Lessons With, “I Don’t Know”

When I was the music tech teacher at THS four years ago, I wanted to share my love of music production with a group of sixth grade students. Ambitiously, I attempted to reveal the tech magic behind how a synthesizer works.


I began by saying, “To be honest guys, I don’t really know how synthesizers work. I never had a tech teacher growing up. I taught myself everything I’m going to tell you about today from watching Youtube since I was your age. So, let’s pretend this is show and tell and I’m just another student like you - except with more facial hair.”



I painted elaborate diagrams and flowcharts - demonstrating that a sine wave hums like a UFO while a square wave zaps like an electric fence - that you can feel the sound in your bones with a low pass filter while a high pass filter can shatter glass if you’re not mindful of the resonance. By the end of my monologue, eyes had glazed over from the technical gibberish and I received only one question, “When’s lunch?”


That day, I learned that synthesizers were beyond sixth grade - and quite beyond me too.


Fast forward to last month, one of my students from that same class, now in high school, showed me a composition he had been working on. Not only did he understand the magic behind the synthesizers in a way that I still don’t, he walked me through the importance of correct compression, dynamic EQ and FX automation - more gibberish that left my own eyes feeling glazed.


“How did you learn all of this?” I asked, overwhelmed by his onslaught of techy jargon.


“I enrolled in an online course, taught by Deadmau5 (a popular DJ and producer). It’s easy, Mr. Lam...really.”


I smiled proudly. There was a glimmer of myself in this student - a thirst for knowledge in his words and an audacity to experiment in his music.


I came to an epiphany then: that the greatest quality of a 21st century teacher is to be a self-navigating professional learner. It means one who does not fold when the answers are not there but rather perseveres to find out in his or her own way. What that student learned from me in sixth grade was not how synthesizers work but that, in the age of the Internet, the path to knowledge is in their hands and nobody else’s.


Having taught tech for three years now, I’ve learned that it is not really by my words or lessons that my students learn about technology - it is by being who I am, lost and curious. Rather than be defeated by what I don’t know, I model my own learning process for them and say to my students, “I don’t know...but I’ll find out.”


In the end, you remember your best teachers and your worst teachers and you’ll forget everyone in between. You’ll rarely recall the content they taught you but you’ll always remember who they are as people. I believe that to be a student, in front of your students, is the key to teaching how to learn in the future.


I have attached that high schooler’s composition below. Aptly titled, “A New Beginning,” what you’ll hear is hope in the strings, drive in the drums and, if you listen carefully, the sound of a self-directed learner.


A New Beginning by TotallyNotACookie




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