questions, student driven

Why "I Don’t Know" is Powerful

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That first year of teaching when a child asked a questions I did not have the answer for I stalled.  I hemmed, I hummed, I did a little dance and then either hoped they would forget their question, that another child would know the answer or that class would be over so that I could quickly figure out what the answer was.

I didn’t think I could say, “I don’t know…”

Go to my second year of teaching and another question from another child, again; stalling, nervous glances, some vague reply hoping to satiate curious minds, but otherwise, same approach.  Glance at bell, dismiss the question, hope for a lifeline, wish that my principal or a parent wouldn’t see me in this position.  Anything but to admit my own inadequacy of not being the master teacher and simply not knowing something.

I never thought to say, “I don’t know…”

Third year of teaching and I realized I wasn’t the only expert in the room.  One child knew more about wars at 10 years old than I would ever be able to cram into my head.  Another was an expert on poetry.  The questions kept coming but my approach to them changed; I stopped being afraid of them and realized that not knowing something was powerful.  Not knowing something and admitting it  was a sign of strength, a learning opportunity to model how I would find out.  Now instead of nervous glances at the door, hoping no one would ever discover that I didn’t have all of the answers, I asked the students for help.  How would we find out, why was this a great question, did anyone else know?

This year, I am fully aware that I am not the only expert, I embrace it daily.  That I am not supposed to know everything.  That I am not supposed to pretend I do.  Instead, I am there to show what happens when we don’t know.  To show that even though I did my preparations for class I couldn’t put everything into my head but I have ways to help me through any question.  Now my students know to try to find the answer first using a multitude of sources instead of just asking me.  Now I ask my students questions that make them say, “I don’t know…”

I now know the power of “I don’t know…”

2 thoughts on “Why "I Don’t Know" is Powerful”

  1. Even after 22 years of teaching I'm still saying those words. Honesty is sometimes so humbling. I think it is important for kids to see that we DON'T know everything – that we don't have all the answers. It's what we do after those words "I don't know" come from our lips that matters. Do we then, stop the class and find out the answers or do we allow our students to seek the answers themselves? Do we just say "we'll find out" and then go along our daily business? I think how we model finding out the information is a lesson in itself. Thanks for sharing.

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