Sage Advice: What is the most important thing that we can teach our students?

Robin Groch

There is a tremendous risk of personal hubris attached to even broaching the subject of this year’s topic. The school I spent the last 25 years at periodically tasked us to develop a mission statement, and I sat on innumerable committees trying to hash out just what that global and well-meaning goal should encompass. Worthy expected schoolwide learning results (ESLRs) demanded specifics: curricular skills; complex and critical thinking; and speaking, listening, writing. But, most importantly, integrity and responsibility.1

However, I presume - definitely a dangerous practice - that the topic specifically really wants a thorough exploration of what attitude or mindset or practice a science teacher can pass on to their students. This deeply personal question led me to looking at many of the quotes I used to share with students. Isaac Asimov featured most prominently with gems like:

“A subtle thought that is in error may yet give rise to fruitful inquiry that can establish truths of great value.” - Isaac Asimov 2

"The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries is not ‘Eureka!’ (‘I found it!’), but, ‘That's funny … .’" - Isaac Asimov 3

“Klieg, Klieg, Klieg-Du bist a Nar. You are smart, smart, smart – but you are not so smart!” - a Yiddish saying 4

“Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know.” - Daniel J. Boorstin 5

“An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't.” - Anatole France 6

In fact after a bunch of false trails, I found I needed to go into my own back history to find my personal answer. I recalled a teacher saying something about being a fool if you study alone. As my students did I looked on Google and found the source:

“There is an ancient saying: ‘The one who studies Talmud alone is a fool.’ The Talmud is so incredibly profound that one of its nicknames is ‘The Sea.’ People trying to swim in it without the proper guidance can become lost, overwhelmed or misled by misconceptions.”7

I have thoroughly mixed up my Hebrew High philosophy classes with the ocean of science knowledge and practices I have swum these 40 years. So simply and to the point, the most important thing we can give our students is a list of sage advice. Here is my top 10:

  1. Work collaboratively. (Only a fool works alone and doesn’t share.) Everyone’s contribution is hopefully useful; talk your ideas out, and get feedback.
  2. Science is a sea full of misconceptions; your job is to clarify.
  3. Whoopsies and failures are OK. Repeat, refine, and look for new ways to solve the problem.
  4. Making mistakes may be important - think Velcro, LSD, Viagra, penicillin. 8
  5. You never know what you will find until you find it.
  6. Perseverance is important, especially with student driven inquiry.
  7. Act tenaciously, and go for it.
  8. Never ever be satisfied with the “correct” answer; always go beyond the correct answer; learning is more important than the grade.
  9. The Internet does and does not have all the answers.
  10. Live long and prosper by paying it forward with the following generation.

1. Mission & ESLRs. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2015, from

2. Isaac Asimov. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2015, from Web site:

3. Winter, D. (2011, July 18). Sunday Spinelessness - What the... ? Retrieved December 7, 2015, from

4. 20 Favorite Jewish Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2015, from

5. Daniel J. Boorstin. (n.d.). Retrieved December 7, 2015, from Web site:

6. Anatole France quote. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from

7. Doliner, R. (n.d.). RoyDoliner. Retrieved December 17, 2015, from

8. 10 Accidental Inventions You Won’t Believe. (n.d.). Retrieved December 17, 2015, from

Robin Groch is a teacher of 28 years, most recently at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, CA, where she taught general biology, ninth grade accelerated biology with research, as well as AP Biology for 20 years. She has also taught seventh and eighth grade science as well as ninth grade physical and earth sciences. She retired at the end of the 2014-2015 school year, but foolishly taught 2nd semester 2016 as a favor for a friend. She is now the Assistant Director of the Alameda County Science & Engineering Fair (through 6/2016) and will be substituting in her spare time.