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The Power of "I Don't Know"

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

When I teach facilitation to teachers, I spend a lot of time trying to help them get over the need to rescue kids. There's so much power in turning questions back to kids, in showing them that they know more than they think they do and can figure things out for themselves. Even if you *do* know the answer, ask yourself if they can find out for themselves. If they can, then you do better by them if you push them to do it for themselves.

adragonteacher's picture

I teach at the community college level, and it brings a lot of frustration when students, having been standardized, keep asking questions - or the more painful, "just tell me what you want." My efforts are to turn their "I don't knows" into "I want to know," which is similar to Pachut's response. I don't always use I dont know. I often bring the question to the class, and we process possibilities before hunting for answers. Thanks for the tips on deeper internet searches. I'll make that scavenger hunt a habit! Everyone wins.

BxNS_Kevin's picture

Totally agree that a teacher does not have to be a rescuer of learners but rather a guide. I think its okay for a teacher not to know to and to learn with their students. Never saw a student more empowered than when she, along with her tech-phobic one to one para, wrote their first successful lines of code. Not only was she more motivated to learn so she can teach her para, but her para was just as proud that she learned something new as well. They overcame their fear and frustration together and had an amazing moment together.

Joseph Makhluf's picture

I agree that teachers should be able to say "I don't know" when asked a question they don't have knowledge about. Teachers should be a guide rather than a "rescuer of learners" as other comments have suggested. We should be teaching students how to use the information on the web, and teach them how to tell legit sources from those that shouldn't be used for homework and other assignments. I think the Scavenger Hunt would be a great tool to teach students how to do refine their keyword search in google as well.

fbcoachdad's picture

Your theory behind "I don't know" is a breath of fresh air. I did not become an educator to teach my students simply what they need to know to pass a standardized test. I wanted to teach my students how to think, how to solve problems, how to ask questions and seek answers, how to resolve conflicts. With the pressures put on us as teachers, by our state legislators, for our students to perform these early dreams have somewhat been forgotten. But, thanks to technology and posts like yours the dream is alive again. Using technology and teaching students the possibilities of technology allows us as educators to expand what we can do in the classroom and allows us to teach those skills every student needs to thrive. No longer do we have to "teach to the test", instead we can prepare for the world.

SEDIQUE's picture
Mathematics Expert LAUSD

It looks like a constructivist classroom. You made an excellent point about Wikipedia, that students often think is verified and true information.

Mrs. Cintron's picture

I enjoyed reading this post and I have found that saying, "I don't know," to students allows them the opportunity to search for the answers themselves. Many times, our students have had the experience of teachers or other individuals for that matter give answers to them; instead of encouraging students to inquire.

MrConner's picture

I have also found the power of 'I don't know' to be both liberating as a teacher, and inspiring to students, shifting the focus of learning from solely recalling of memorized facts to an exploration and a journey into discovering knowledge. Thanks to Google and the plentiful resources online, teachers (and textbooks, for that matter) are no longer expected to be the sole source and providers of knowledge and learning, but instead guides, facilitators, models, and inspirers. Fanning the flames of student curiosity and empowering them to explore through that vital treasure trove of knowledge and information known as the online world does more not only to help students remain engaged in learning, but also helps them grow into lifelong learners who are always coming up with new questions to explore.

Of course digital citizenship and identifying reliable resources is vital to this evolving landscape of education, as there is plenty of biased, slanted, and sometimes downright inaccurate information out there due to the free and open nature of the internet, but between encouraging and empowering our students to explore and equipping them to determine the difference between information and misinformation, we are certainly heading down the right track in terms of 21st century education.

Thanks you for this post!

Era S's picture

As an aspiring teacher, I found your post to be very helpful and can certainly see utilizing your strategies in the classroom. I like your idea of "empowering students" with a strategy they can use to "recognize falsehood online" by "triangulating the data." This is a great way to help students develop good research skills.

Debbie's picture

Getting students to say, "I don't know" is very powerful. I know the take away from this article is helping students to search for what they do not know. I also think it is important for student,s who are saying, "I don't know...." , to specifically verbalize what they do not know. I've had students reply, "Everything!" when asked what they don't know. This usually follows with me getting very basic with them about the symbols on their papers are called numbers; we use them to represent amounts. This usually makes the students laugh and then they tell me exactly where they run into problems and what they do know as well as what they don't know. Just another way we can help students become more specific when searching for information.


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