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

By AJ Juliani, 13 comments

My daughter is five 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 the 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 5 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 glasses 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.

Photo Credit: e-magic via Compfight cc

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