Skip to main content

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"

Related Reading



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Good People; The Product of Good Schools

The nightly business reports frequently mention inputs and outputs. Gross National Product (GNP) is a widely recognized leading economic indicator. Widgets aside, what is the product of schools? Some of you want to jump on a table and scream, "children are not products!" Let this breathe a bit as you trudge forward.



In his recent post, Mark Heintz eloquently shares his ruminations to a question being kicked around in our Modern Learners community, "What do we want our children to be?" Credit Pam Moran, Ira Socol, and Chad Ratliff, co-authors of "Timeless Learning; How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-based Thinking Change Schools," for sparking this conversation theme. Timeless Learning provides interesting provocations, inspiring experiences, and compelling rationale for school change.

Like others, my school's leadership team is engaging in discussions about reimagining school to meet the needs of our modern learners. These conversations are seldom e…

Grammarly Writing Hacks for Better Blogging

Writing is learning. It's taken me about thirty years to realize the metacognitive power of written expression, the same amount of time it took for me to recognize that my writing skills suck. Apparently, time in composition class was spent daydreaming and making silly faces at girls. Today, each post is an exercise of will power, unlearning and relearning prepositional phrases, comma usage, and when to use the ever-popular semicolon. Two hundred posts into my blogging adventure I've picked up a few tricks that add efficiency to my writing, things that make me appear smarter than I really am.


Freelance writer, Jennie Cromie, writing for ProBlogger.net, identifies five ways blogging can make you a better writer. Discover your voiceBuild social connectionsAcquire valuable feedbackBecome self-disciplinedWrite faster and more efficiently
Writing with intent to learn is the mindset to lead with. Using the right tools permits scatterbrains like me to focus on the message rather than un…

To Email, or Not

Should current students learn how to use email?


As someone who celebrates a clean email inbox about once every five years, I found it interesting that the topic of student email usage was on the agenda of our recent high school leadership meeting. The focus of this brief conversation concentrated on these questions.



How can we get students to utilize their school email account better? Should we be teaching students how to communicate with email?When and where should email usage skills be taught? Who's responsibility is this?Why do we want kids to check their email? Those around the conference room table agreed with the importance of students checking their email to stay informed about upcoming events and opportunities. Others mentioned it as being an important part of "digital executive functioning." Time was running short when someone said, "Kids don't use email."

This brief statement sent my mind scurrying in several simultaneous directions. 

First, thinking …