Critical Thinking

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

September 26, 2014

The role of teaching has evolved. No longer are we the carriers of knowledge, giving it to students and assessing if they can repeat facts successfully. We are, instead, tasked with teaching students how to find answers themselves.

And it all starts with a simple three-word phrase: I don't know.

Adopting a comfortable "I don't know" attitude is far more accurate for what we need to do as educators then pretending we know it all. It sounds counterintuitive, I know. After all, in many job interviews, "I don't know" stereotypically shows a lack of experience in the field, right? (I would argue that this is also starting to evolve, however.)

But in school where every client is a work in progress, we need to cultivate a certain excitement in not knowing something. Modeling an excited "I don't know" attitude is the brass doorknob that opens the portal to finding answers together.

Changing Attitudes

At the start of each year, I have to train students that I will not be feeding them answers. I will not be having them copy notes from the board. I will not hand out copies of words and definitions for them to study. I will not hand them fill-in-the-blank paragraphs that we will all fill in together.

Rather, I will teach them how to develop questions. And when they ask me for answers, I will happily and without embarrassment, reply with, "I don't know."

I will also teach them that when I ask them a question it's OK if they say, "I don't know." I won't make them feel bad for not knowing the answer. Instead, I will spend vital time teaching them that when "I don't know" pops into one's head, it is the trigger to find out. For me, the guide in the room, that means making sure that my own attitude does not reflect our society's assumption that "I don't know" is a weakness.

"I don't know" has been so negatively ingrained that it can make a student feel powerless enough that just the mere inkling of it tickling their brain can shut down learning. But to make "I don't know" a more positive phrase takes targeted lessons in empowering students to conquer their own confusion. It's important to permit them confusion, to permit them to admit that the pathway before them is blocked with overgrown foliage and weeds. Then you hand them a mental machete to clear the way themselves.

In the Classroom

One way to give power to an "I don't know" attitude is to teach internet literacy early and often, giving students the power to seek out answers themselves.

Today, I'm going to share the first three lessons I do to teach online literacy, and those that focus the most on harnessing the power of the search bar so that "I don't know" can really mean, "Wait! Let me find out!"

1. Make Google do the work. I do a quick exercise with my students about the brat that is the Google search. Incidentally, I give it a voice and personality for my students. I have them type into the standard search bar: video games in education and ask for the number of pages Google recommends. The answer is somewhere in the 800,000,000 range. "What?" I say as lazy Google. "I just gave you what you asked for." Then I challenge them to make Google do all the work. See, Google doesn't make people stupid, as a recent article once claimed. It just does what you ask it to, no more, no less. The challenge, then, is to think about how to be specific enough in your search that you make the search engine do the work for you.

From there, I have students customize the Google advanced search page. Use more specific key words; use the drop down menus such as those that focus on language, region, and date posted. Then, I show them how to filter for fair use. Then I have them click "Advanced Search." (From the results page, if you click on "Search Tools" you'll see the new number of hits.)

This leads to an inevitably more encouraging number than before. You might find that some students have only 5,000 hits. Some might have only 1,000. But what you're looking for are those students who can model what they did on the advanced search page that resulted in only 50 or 20 or even 10 hits that really apply to the topic. After all, if most students don't click past the first page of results on a search, it's vital to make sure that this first page is as applicable to their topic as possible.

2. Create a timed scavenger hunt. Group students with a short list of questions that need to be answered about a particular topic. Sure, I'm an English Language Arts teacher, but I ask eighth grade history questions on my scavenger hunt to reinforce the communication of content other than my own.

To find the answers, the students need to work together to develop the most efficient key word combinations to make Google do the more accurate searching for them. Make it a contest: Which group can most quickly find the correct answer, correctly cite the page on which it was found, and insert the answer and citation on the Google Document posted on the monitor in the front of the room?

3. Verify the Evidence. Embrace Wikipedia and all that it can teach. But make sure that a student knows the steps to verify what's legit and what's biased or even outright false. Wikipedia makes for a great lesson on keywords and main ideas. Take a passage that is related to your content. Have the students pull out the main facts, data, or keywords. Can they even recognize them? That's an informal assessment right there. Have them assemble these keywords into their own question and Google it. Have they found at least three other websites to corroborate the fact? I call this "triangulating the data," and it empowers students by giving them a strategy they can use to recognize falsehood online.

Sheridan Blau once said, "Honor confusion." The phase, "I don't know" is one that both honors confusion and stimulates the process of clearing it up.

How does your classroom honor "I don't know?" What strategies do you use to help them find their own answers? Please share in the comments section below.

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  • Curriculum Planning
  • Online Learning
  • Technology Integration

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