‘To be honest’ is a phrase I rarely heard until we moved to the UK. Perhaps that’s why it caught my attention and eventually became a pet peeve. ‘Omit needless words!’ is the style commandment I hold dear from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style . ‘To be honest’ can usually be jettisoned with that decree in mind. It is a filler, a mannerism, a waste of half a breath. On hearing it, I think, ‘Argh! Why not simply say what you want, instead of padding meaning with an empty phrase?’
But then I started thinking about the phrase. What does it mean to be honest in conversation? It occurred to me that a soft spot in my years of teaching was how often I veered away from bald-faced honesty. In trying to navigate the fast-moving waters of genuine criticism, helpful advice, and encouragement, I may have taken shallower, easier routes around obstacles. I know I skated over possible disagreements. I held back, fearing that the white-water rapids of an unqualified opinion would drown my students.
As a result, I think we both lost out. I underestimated us. We could have dared deeper exchanges; we might have travelled farther towards understanding. But I chose not to be honest, and opted instead for vague safety.
About a year ago, I started working on a project with a company called HeyMath! We are creating resources that will be used to teach physical science in South Africa. Once the product is released, it will be in many schools, helping hundreds of students. And once it is seen by all those eyes, we can’t get it back, we can’t make any more refinements. With time, we’ll learn from the users and make a stronger version based on their experiences. But the first version needs to be as good as we can imagine with the understanding we have now.
Which means that as a developer, I’ve chosen to be honest. To be satisfyingly ruthless in sharing my opinions and ideas without disclaimer, filler, apology. Not without tact, but sans the smokescreen. Perhaps it’s the tone of respect and collaboration set by the project lead, perhaps it’s everyone’s careful phrasing of and attention to real feedback. Who knows the precise alchemy of a strong team? But it works. The conversations about our material feel like honest assessment, not personal attack, and the quality gets better and better.
I am so excited about this project. We hope to bring it to classrooms in a few months. I’ve written 25 short interactive animations about Newtonian dynamics and helped with many others on various topics. Each animation goes through a rigorous review process by multiple content developers and animators. Although I may have had the initial idea for an animation, by the time it passes through the creative and critical attentions of 5-6 other passionate minds, it’s always different and greatly improved. I love being surprised by what my colleagues see that I have missed with the myopia of origination. There is a wonderful synergy of creativity, innovation, and patient problem-solving. I have been having a great time. I can’t wait to see how it works in the classroom.
Much of the satisfaction, I’m convinced, is because I have not held back in reactions and feedback. And, from what I can sense, neither have the others.
To be honest, it’s the best teaching and learning move I’ve made in a long time.