Things I Know 167 of 365: ‘I don’t know, but…’ is sexy

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

– President Abraham Lincoln

Pay attention, because you won’t hear this next sentence from me again. Abe was wrong.

Peter Senge writes, “School trains us never to admit that we do not know the answer, and most corporations reinforce that lesson by rewarding the people who excel in advocating their views, not inquiring into complex issues.”

If this is the case, Senge’s other supposition that business leaders are trained to ignore systems thinking or see issues more deeply because of similar school training, an amazing opportunity exists for teachers.

I struggled with this all through the school year. On vocabulary quizzes, I asked students to use each word in a meaningful sentence to demonstrate their ability to use a word in context.

“Even if you don’t know,” I would tell them, “write something down.”

My mom always said, “If you don’t ask, then the answer is always ‘no,’” and I was attempting to apply the same logic to the quiz.

No matter how emphatically, personally and repeatedly I urged, students left blanks on their papers.

Later, I’d inquire as to why.

“I didn’t know it.”

“You realize, writing anything down gave you more of a chance than leaving it blank?”

“Uh-huh.”

I went out of my mind.

Senge sums up the problem nicely.

My students weren’t showing me they didn’t know the answer. They would have to write something down to do that. Instead, they were showing me they could choose not to write an answer.

Setting aside all I could have done to improve their learning of the vocabulary, let’s focus on what I could have done – what all teachers can do – to improve the rate of response when students feel they are in the dark.

The best answer for my money is giving classroom credence to some variation of “I don’t know, but here’s my best guess.”

“Even if we feel uncertain or ignorant, we learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain of ignorant,” Senge writes.

Certainly, by the time I met them in high school, my students have learned the survival techniques.

Creating a classroom culture that honors “I don’t know” is a difficult proposition. It works against the majority of what students have been taught and what led most teachers to the classroom. We are there because we knew and kept right on knowing until we were charged helping others know.

If our students sense even a fragment of that path on us as we walk in the door, imagine the intimidation they could feel.

A student once admitted to me the reason she hadn’t turned in a single assignment for the first month of class was that she worried nothing would be good enough.

I failed.

Yes, some of this rests in the foibles of the students, but a chunk of it belongs to me. My job was to make “I don’t know,” cool and to set a tone that helped students see value in whatever they created.

Eventually, the student began submitting work, but it pains me to think of what I missed in that month.

The four most powerful words in any classroom should be, “I don’t know, but…”

3 thoughts on “Things I Know 167 of 365: ‘I don’t know, but…’ is sexy

  1. So how do you make “i don't know” cool? By admitting often that you yourself don't always know? When I don't know something a student asks me, I know not to try and fake that I do. It goes over terribly and they can sense you're faking. Instead, I admit that I don't know and look to the class to help me find the answer. Sure, I've gotten a few “well you're the teacher…you're SUPPOSED TO KNOW.” I take that moment to warn them against assuming those in power know everything and to instead think critically and think for themselves. To not let the wool be pulled over their eyes. It helps a little, but I'm still working on how to get the other students to be comfortable with “i don't know,” especially with a lot of know-it-alls in the class.

  2. Oooh – this post resonated with me as a parent. John and I have NEVER felt the need to know it all as parents, mostly because we are very used to NOT knowing it all and using current technology to help us instantly find the answer. “I don't know – let's Google it and find out!” is almost a mantra in our house. [Although we quickly learned that we had inadvertently set “the internet up” as the supreme authority on everything, which meant we had to teach them early how to evaluate sources and question the credibility of data online!] As a result of this type of immersion in data seeking, our kids are getting remarkably good at problem solving and finding credible information on their own.But mistake making is a WHOLE other story. Teaching kids to go out on a limb and be ok with…not FAILURE, but ERROR…is unspeakably, incredibly hard when you and your spouse are both type-A perfectionists who want to GET IT RIGHT, dangit! Our kids are bright “tween-aged” children who seek information, but who too often get literally PARALYZED by the fear of being wrong. This past school year, the 11yo failed (as in, received an F!) during one quarter of her gifted class because she was so afraid to do her independent 10 week research project wrong that she procrastinated the entire thing until the last 2 weeks of the quarter. Of course, John and I were beside ourselves over this, but we had to acknowledge that SOME of the problem came from us ourselves and the learning environment we created.  Seeing the results of my own parenting is literally teaching me, very very slowly, to go easier on myself, to STOP viewing every choice and decision I make in life as a test question I can either get right or wrong. I am struggling to embrace an attitude of “let's just try this and see how it turns out” in my life, which is kinda like saying, “I don't know [how this is gonna turn out] but…let's give it a whirl anyway!”

  3. Oooh – this post resonated with me as a parent. John and I have NEVER felt the need to know it all as parents, mostly because we are very used to NOT knowing it all and using current technology to help us instantly find the answer. “I don't know – let's Google it and find out!” is almost a mantra in our house. [Although we quickly learned that we had inadvertently set “the internet up” as the supreme authority on everything, which meant we had to teach them early how to evaluate sources and question the credibility of data online!] As a result of this type of immersion in data seeking, our kids are getting remarkably good at problem solving and finding credible information on their own.But mistake making is a WHOLE other story. Teaching kids to go out on a limb and be ok with…not FAILURE, but ERROR…is unspeakably, incredibly hard when you and your spouse are both type-A perfectionists who want to GET IT RIGHT, dangit! Our kids are bright “tween-aged” children who seek information, but who too often get literally PARALYZED by the fear of being wrong. This past school year, the 11yo failed (as in, received an F!) during one quarter of her gifted class because she was so afraid to do her independent 10 week research project wrong that she procrastinated the entire thing until the last 2 weeks of the quarter. Of course, John and I were beside ourselves over this, but we had to acknowledge that SOME of the problem came from us ourselves and the learning environment we created.  Seeing the results of my own parenting is literally teaching me, very very slowly, to go easier on myself, to STOP viewing every choice and decision I make in life as a test question I can either get right or wrong. I am struggling to embrace an attitude of “let's just try this and see how it turns out” in my life, which is kinda like saying, “I don't know [how this is gonna turn out] but…let's give it a whirl anyway!”

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