Why Should Admitting “I Don’t Know” Be So Scary?

A long time ago, a barefooted gentleman in in a toga extolled the virtues of admitting one’s own ignorance.  His name was Socrates, and he wasn’t suggesting that we should go through life not caring about the answers to life’s biggest questions, but rather that each of us had a lot to learn.  Socrates felt that a dialogue centred around open-mindedness and logic was about as good as it gets.  The people to be admired were those who were willing to shrug their shoulders and say “Let’s talk about it.”

It sounds marvelous, but most parents and teachers dread being put in a position in which they don’t have answers.  Parents, after all, are supposed to serve as guides and mentors.  Teachers are supposed to be experts.  We chase monsters from under the bed, deal with playground bullies, and hold little hands at the dentist, but we’re not often prepared to admit to one of our own greatest fears as care givers and educators.  Is there anything worse than having a young inquiring mind request a nugget of knowledge and wisdom, and finding that we have little or nothing to give?  Doesn’t teaching hinge on having answers to impart?

Well, to answer those two questions, yes and no.  There are many good things that can come from admitting you haven’t got things sorted out yourself.  Yes, it means tweaking our traditional definition of teaching, but for good reason.

Here’s a list of five amazing things that can happen when we admit we don’t know:

  1. We establish a new kind of trust between teacher and learner. Even small children can sense when we’re fudging our answers.  Fessing up to our own ignorance demonstrates that big people are learners too, and that education is a collaborative process.
  2. We create a space in which big (and difficult) questions are seen as exciting challenges, instead of huge obstacles to learning. These challenges can be revisited again and again.
  3. We encourage learners to consider a variety of viewpoints. Not only can there be many answers to a question, but the question itself can be reinterpreted in a number of ways.  This is what education expert Sir Ken Robinson refers to as “divergent thinking”.
  4. We give learners a degree of ownership over their education. It’s no longer a matter of someone “giving” them what they need to know. They become responsible for finding it out for themselves.
  5. We demonstrate that learning is more than a process of ingesting facts and spitting them out again in a prescribed order. It’s a dialogue, an exploration, and a constant re-evaluation of what we’ve already learned.

Okay, it may not be the most important three-word phrase we utter to our children, but telling them “I don’t know” is highly-underrated.  Not only is it a surprising relief for a big person to admit to it, but it can serve as an incredible springboard for learners of all ages.