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When is "I don't know" a great answer?

My younger brother and I weren't the most destructive kids on our block, but we did have our moments of mischief and mishaps. It was through these occasional errors in judgement that we developed a self-defense response called, "I don't know." Even in the event of being caught red-handed, we habitually broke out the "I don't know" shield. Trouble was, this answer was never acceptable to our parents. Not only was it considered the wrong answer, it in fact, only seemed to make matters worse for us.  (We will discuss the merits of rewards and punishments in a future post.) Like Bill Cosby hilariously suggests, maybe we were just "brain damaged".


As a practicing educator for the past 20+ years, I still, on occasion, get accused of having brain damage. While this may contain some truth, one thing I have most-certainly learned as a result of spending practically my entire life in school is... "I don't know" is not only a great answer, from a teacher's perspective, it just might be, at times, the best answer.
  • If you ask a thoughtful and challenging question - the answer that you should anticipate would be, "I don't know".  (Be prepared with a follow up challenge.)
  • When leading students into inquiry-based research, the best student response that you could hope for would be, "I don't know".  (Go find a solution.)
  • A lab experiment becomes a mysterious puzzle when it begins with "I don't know".  (Prediction, analysis, and reflection)
  • A class discussion or debate can remain student-centered when the teacher says, "I don't know".  ("You guys will have to figure this out.")
  • Students can assist in finding solutions, and take on more responsibility for learning when the teacher says, "I don't know".  ("Your expertise can help guide this research.")
  • Teachers are not perfect, they can appear more human to students when they say, "I don't know".  (Perfection is not reality. It's OK to acknowledge, and work through, shortcomings.)
  • Students and teachers can turn to their personal learning networks when they find themselves saying, "I don't know". ("Our networks are loaded with experts. Collectively, we can find solutions to complex problems.")
In this age of abundant information and connected networks, it is more important for teachers to ask the right questions - rather than having all of the right answers. The pressure to be the expert in the classroom is removed when teachers shift the responsibility of learning to the students, and their networks.  Once teachers assume the role of lead learner in the classroom, "I don't know" can be the spark that prompts a cooperative investigation to develop essential learning dispositions, collaborative research skills, and meaningful, helpful solutions to authentic problems stemming from those high quality questions mentioned previously.

Maybe my brother and I weren't brain damaged after all.  Maybe we were just too advanced for our own good.  "I don't know"

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