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Being a teacher doesn’t mean you have to know everything. In fact, finding the best way of saying "I don’t know" can actually transform learning for your students.
There come times in all our lives when we get tripped up by a question. We pause, we panic, we lie—we do whatever we’ve been conditioned to do to fill up that ponderous silence. But why? Are we afraid of looking stupid? Is it that we feel we have to have all the answers? Do we just want to be helpful and feel inadequate when we don’t know something?
For the longest time a stigma has been attached to showing a lack of immediate knowledge, mostly one of shame and guilt. It's largely because we spend so much of our lives in comparison to others. (“Am I not working hard enough to inform myself? Maybe I should take classes, or read more. I just don’t think as quickly as ______ does.”)
So you don’t have an immediate answer. So what?
Whether we know the answer or not, the point is that there are always ways to find out, more so today than ever before. If you have a smartphone, you can answer anything in under 10 seconds. It’s the deeper questions, not the trivial ones, that really have us doubting ourselves when we can’t respond.
These are the kinds of questions our learners can hit us with at anytime during a class, and here’s the truth—you’re not always going to be ready.
Saying "I don’t know" is one of the hardest things humans have to utter. Truthfully, though, it doesn’t have to be, and especially when you’re a teacher. In fact, saying "I don’t know" can be a powerful tool for promoting independent thinking, encouraging discovery, and giving learning back to your learners.
The Power of Saying "I Don’t Know"
According to Irena Nayfeld, a professional development workshop facilitator, questions give us a choice of paths. Once students ask a question, says Irena, there are 3 paths a teacher can take when they haven’t an answer:
- Ignore the question or tell the student now is not the time.
- Answer the question as best as you can and keep going with your lesson.
- Say “I don’t know, but that’s a great question—how can we find out?”
Obviously, the first one is the least appealing choice. After all, the goal in education isn’t to discourage curiosity but rather to provoke it. Some would argue also that the second choice is a viable one, and in some cases it would be.
The problem with it is that even though intentions are good, the results can be detrimental. You can lead learners astray with incomplete or only partially factual information, despite your best efforts.
But what if you were to embrace that fear of not knowing, and use it to your learners’ advantage? What if you were to display your fallibility and humanity as a person, rather than your flawless intellectual unsinkability as a teacher?
You agree to take the journey along with your learners, that’s what. With abandon, you choose to join them on their adventure and be a student yourself. That’s your reward for saying "I don’t know" and being more than okay with it.
“When you are not sure of the answer, use it as an opportunity to model curiosity,” suggests Irena. It’s not about turning the question back on students; it’s about showing your willingness to facilitate their discovery. It happens in three distinct steps:
- Recognition (“Hmm, I’m not exactly sure.”)
- Expression (“That’s actually a really good question.”)
- Provocation (“How would you begin trying to find out the answer? How can we find it together?”)
This REP approach demonstrates to your students that when you don’t have an answer to something, you go and find it. In the world beyond school, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to provide all the answers for you. Yet ironically, the traditional role of the teacher has always been just that—the keeper of all knowledge. Happily, that role is being reshaped to being a facilitator for learning, or as stated earlier, a model of curiosity. It all begins with saying "I don’t know".
Embracing the Unknown
One of our most favourite exercises in the workshops and keynotes we do is the Paper Tower. We have teachers work in groups to complete this task, and the results are usually quite diverse between teams. The rules are simple: use newspaper and tape to construct the tallest free-standing tower possible.
Perhaps the most common thing we find during this exercise is that, once they begin, the teams realize that there are questions they didn’t ask and things they didn’t consider. After this, the questions come in a flood. This is where we end up saying "I don’t know" a lot, and using the REP approach above to ignite their thinking and teamwork.
What if you were to embrace the fear of not knowing and use it to your learners’ advantage?
We encourage participants to reflect back on the instructions, reconsider them, and derive new realizations from them. Most of all, we encourage them to embrace not knowing, and to collaborate to learn together.
Learning isn’t always simple, but the journey can be more enjoyable by forgoing expectations of having all the answers. There’s a beauty in not knowing, a release in saying "I don’t know" that you can’t describe. It frees you from the tyranny of the immediate, and prepares you for the journey of finding out the truth no matter what it takes.
Embrace not knowing in your classroom—it may lead you and your learners to far better answers than you expected.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Jan 10, 2019, updated September 23, 2021