Friday, May 04, 2007

The value of "I don't know"

I've been thinking a lot lately about what constitutes effective teaching. Often I come back to the view that teaching is more about who you are than what you do. So yesterday I expressed the view that passion, zeal, etc. were more valuable to a teacher than having all the answers.

Today I'd like to speak out in defence of the phrase "I don't know". Some years ago, I met up with the woman who had taught me English and history during my final two years of high school. She confessed to me that her spelling was very poor, which was the reason for her stock in trade response when anyone in the class asked how to spell a word: she would point in the direction of the dictionary on the front table. The idea then was that the student had to find the word in the dictionary and then write it on the board. The truth was that she often didn't know how to spell the word and hoped to improve her own spelling through this sneaky tactic. The occasion was an old girls' reunion and there were several teachers in the room. This anecdote generated a round of similar stories, to much hilarity. The point being that revealing ignorance to your students was a bad move.

Looking back now, I wonder about this. Why is it so risky to admit ignorance? Why must a teacher seem infallible? Surely that sets artificial standards for the learners to aspire to? It jsut smacks too much of gamesmanship to my mind (non-sequitur: isn't it weird that "gamesmanship" and "sportsmanship" are often mutually exclusive concepts?)

I was recently in a meeting where the client asked a question. The question was answered by the provider - totally inaccurately. I was appalled. He obviously had no idea, but dared not risk exposing this fact to the client. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why he didn't simply turn the question over to someone on his team who knew the real answer. Similarly, if a teacher can't admit to a student that s/her doesn't know the answer, surely this opens the door to minsinformation?

If you don't know, but pretend you do, then you remain ignorant and your learner enters the world of thinking he knows when he doesn't.

I haven't always got it right, but when my learners asked me a question to which I didn't know the answer, the tactic I adopted was honesty: "I don't know, let's ask Google." "I don't know, does anyone else know?" "I don't know, why don't you try it and see?" "I don't know, let's check Help." "I don't know, but I will find out and email the answer to you. Would anyone else like to have that information?"

Even before I learned about clever things like peda- and andragogy, collaborative learning, constructivism, and all stuff, it seemed to me to be a logical approach to set the scene as being a journey we were all on together, and in which we could all learn from each other. I don't believe in lying to my kids, and I don't believe in lying to my learners. If you don't know, and say so, you create the potential for an outcome where you do know and where your learners know, too.

I can't see the downside.


Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

This post made me think -- how many times do I tell my students "I don't know" in a typical day. Hmmm. At least once or twice a class, I think.

I think it is important to follow the "I don't know" with -- but why don't you find out and let me know the answer. Used to, it was -- but I'll find out -- but now I think it is important to teach them inquiry and investigation!

Great post!

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

When are you going to get on twitter -- while I"m here!

Anonymous said...

Hi Vicki, thanks for the comments. I've seen twitter appearing a lot in posts and comments, but I've not actually seen it. I've signed up on Explode, which I kind of assumed must be the same sort of thing. I'll have to check it out.