How to Put “I Don’t Know” Back into the Learning Process

My daughter is four years old, and she has no problem saying, “I don’t know.” In fact, that is what makes her such a good learner. She openly admits to not understanding something, and then actually asks for more information on the topic.

All of her “I don’t know’s” throughout the day amount to so much learning. Take for instance just yesterday:

  • She didn’t know how to put on goggles by herself for the pool…now she does after asking.
  • She didn’t know why a baby needs to be burped…now she does.
  • She didn’t know how to spell three particular words…now she does.
  • She didn’t know why there was a little guy with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow on the Lucky Charms box…now she does.

I could go on and on (because 4-year-olds ask lots of questions) but the point is simple. When she doesn’t know something she usually openly admits to not having that knowledge and asks questions or learns by doing (and usually failing a few times).

Sadly when my daughter gets older this type of learning will slowly fade away. She’ll notice that most people around her don’t say, “I don’t know”, and when they do it is usually to defend themselves in one way or another. She’ll find out that “Google” or “Wikipedia” or “Youtube” has a generally sufficient answer to anything she wants to know, and direct most of her questions that way. She’ll realize that we actually live in a society that pretends to know much more than we often do…

When our students or peers don’t know something, they are going to either find out by skimming something online, or talking to a real person that actually has the knowledge. My questions is this: Why do we make it so hard on students and peers to say “I don’t know?”

How to Put I don't know

A Larger Cultural Problem with Faking What You Know

Karl Taro Greenfeld, a journalist and author, published an op-ed in the New York Times on faking cultural literacy.

It’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything. We pick topical, relevant bits from Facebook, Twitter or emailed news alerts, and then regurgitate them. Instead of watching “Mad Men” or the Super Bowl or the Oscars or a presidential debate, you can simply scroll through someone else’s live-tweeting of it, or read the recaps the next day. Our cultural canon is becoming determined by whatever gets the most clicks.

I do this so often that I’m at a loss for words. How many of us have:

a) Tweeted out or shared an article after only reading half-way through?

b) Discussed a show or TV event with co-workers the next day when we were really fast asleep the night before?

c) Input commentary on a book, movie, or TV show that we never watched…but “read” some reviews on?

You know what my daughter would say in any of these situations: I don’t know.

One of my favorite writers on this planet, Shane Parrish, wrote a follow-up story to the NYT piece. In his article, “Why it’s never been easier to fake what you know”, Shane digs a bit deeper into this problem and how it actually impacts our lives:

I was talking to Ryan Holiday about this and he said “It’s not bad because it’s dishonest. It’s bad because we make real, sometimes life altering decisions based on this fakery.” Unable to discern between what we know and what we pretend to know, we ultimately become victims of our own laziness and intellectual dishonesty.

What are we doing to ourselves, our students, our peers, and our children when we “fake what we know?” Wouldn’t it be so much better if we could all say “I don’t know” without worrying what the ramifications might be (personally or professionally) for not understanding something or being able to offer an opinion.

A Simple Solution for Education

I’m going to come out and say this, I don’t really know how to fix this problem culturally. It seems to be growing. It seems to be expected now…and I’m not sure that is every going to change in the era of smart watches and Alexa and Siri. Maybe there will be a pendulum swing and people will get tired of these fake conversations where everyone has an opinion about everything.

But as an educator and learner, there is something simple we can do to bring back “I don’t know” into the learning process: Model it ourselves as teachers and leaders.

When we don’t know something in a staff meeting, we should say so. When a student asks a question we don’t know the answer to, we should learn it together as a class. Just as failure is a huge part of the learning process, so to is the honesty to admit when you don’t know…

Shane Parrish continues his thoughts on what this means:

It means you can’t skim and pretend. It means you actually have to do the work. It means you have to be honest with yourself. It means you have to know when you’re operating in your circle of competence and when you’re outside of it.  It means you have to criticize yourself. It means you need to know the other side to whatever point you’re trying to make better than the other person. It means you have to say “I don’t know.”

We are fast moving into a time of education where information is not just at our fingertips, but on the tip of our tongue. Ask…and you shall receive (information that is). Yet, if we really students to make an impact on this world, they’ll need to truly know what they are talking about. They’ll also need to seriously care about what they do in life, instead of caring about sounding informed in every discussion.

I’m hoping my daughter keeps saying “I don’t know” as she goes through our educational system. I’m not sure if this is wishful thinking, but I also hope I’m able to admit when I don’t know and keep from “faking cultural literacy” in order to model this for my own kids.

Will we ever get to a place where it’s ok again to admit you didn’t understand, or need more time to process?

I don’t know.

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Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • John Bennett says:

    Obvious (to me at least) reasons that “I don’t know” disappears:
    1. It’s interpreted by people (sadly, even some educators) as a negative reflection on the speaker.
    2. It’s thought by too many as an admission of lack of learning.
    3. Too many “learners” want, seek, and respond to the teachers’ telling them what they should no. If they therefore don’t know, they “didn’t / don’t need to know!!!
    4. There is far too little student control / management of their learning.
    5. There is very little assessment of learning that investigates any student’s exploration of depth of their learning.

    My blog, Considerations ( ) seeks to explore the many facets of this need / desire for learner-controlled deeper learning.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi John, thanks for the comment. Just checked out your blog and what you say is spot on…deeper learning cannot be forced. Your list of reasons also struck a chord with me because too many of them hit close to home. Thanks for sharing!

    • John Bennett says:

      Thanks. I really like and consider in depth your posts. Really resonate for me.

  • Loved this post, the quotes from Karl and Shane were perfect compliments to your point. This discussion reminds me of the book The Shallows.

    oh wait, I haven’t read it…


  • The first bullet point about re-posting an article you haven’t completely read stung a bit…I do that way too much. I really enjoyed reading your piece and will consider it next year in my teaching. One other strategy I have tried that works well with this goal is blatantly asking students what they don’t get as an exit slip or a journal reflection. It is a difficult change of mindset, especially if you are not part of a school-wide effort to change. Like in many other aspects, swimming against the current comes with many challenges. Keep writing…good stuff.

    And I’m now going to share this after reading it all the way through! 🙂

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for reading the whole thing Alec 🙂 – I agree with your thoughts on mindset, but we’ve got to keep swimming.

  • Staci says:

    I do this now. I tell my students at the beginning of every year that at some point they will ask me a question that I don’t know the answer to and that’s ok. If I don’t know it then we will look it up together to find the answer. I let them know I will never act like I know and tell them to go and look it up themselves. It’s ok to not know, it’s not ok to act like you do when you do not. Thank you for the reinforcement of my system.

  • Chris Kesler says:

    It’s funny that you wrote this article, because I was just thinking the exact same thing last night as I went to bed. I was pondering what to say to students when they ask me tougher questions that I don’t have the answer to. We’re all fearful of looking like a joke to our students by not giving them a right answer by saying I don’t know. This is what I came up with when faced with that situation again.

    “I don’t know. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I don’t have all the answers to all of the science questions in the world, but I don’t. What I do have are the skills to find the answer and the ability to teach those skills to you. That’s far more important that knowing the answer. Let’s take a look…”

    I feel like by handling it that way you don’t lose any credibility. In fact, you may even teach a kid those important research skills along the way.

  • […] Juliani wrote an article on his website in which he mentions the loss of not knowing.  Children ask a lot of questions.   […]

  • @kerkview says:

    Right through school, as a student, I always asked ‘Why?’ and was determined that, as a teacher, I would encourage my students to do likewise. I got advice from a mentor when I started teaching: Learn to say ‘I don’t know’ frequently in front of your class. That way, they’ll come to know that we are all learning, all the time. I also adopted a policy of explaining my thinking out loud in class, so that those who might not openly ask ‘Why?’ could get the answer to their unasked question.

  • Alena Zink says:

    Loved the deep thinkning in your post. I want to believe that more and more educators understand the issue. At least, I hope in my school they do. Do you think asking better questions can improve the flakiness you are talking about? Sometimes I think the depth of questions is shallow and it is easy to pretend we know all the answers. But when questions are deep and meaningful, kids and adults do not have a problem to say “I don’t know.”
    Thanks so much for a great post. And yes, I read it all. 🙂

  • @Briteeyes49 says:

    I will say “I don’t know” in a heartbeat, I have no problem saying it to my students or adults. However, I will always ask my students to find the answer, or find the answer myself. When my students say, “You didn’t know…”, to another student, I always respond, “No, they did not know, which is why they asked the question. We are so afraid of making ourselves look “stupid”, that we would rather remain ignorant. Great article!

  • […] Juliani recently published an article about putting “I don’t know” back in the classroom. He says “When our students or peers […]

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