Stealthy Teachers say “I don’t know”



There has been a long standing tradition among teachers and parents to “know everything” and to “always be right”.  I quote these of course because no matter how much we say them, we all know it’s not true.

We’ve all heard that we should admit to our children when we don’t know things, but I don’t think it comes easily to the majority of people.  I find that most people would rather give their children inaccurate or partial information than to fess up and say “I don’t know”, or for that matter, to go the extra three steps to find out.

Well not this stealthy mom.  I am proud to tell my daughter when I don’t know, and actually get excited when the opportunity arises.

Whenever she comes up to me with her big toddler eyes and wondering mind and asks a really good question, I try my best to answer it fully and accurately.  But sometimes I find she asks such great questions that I just don’t know the answers.  (I am generally insanely proud of this, by the way).  When that happens, my response is always, “I don’t know, we’ll have to look it up”, and then we do.

I usually take this opportunity to talk to her a little bit about what we are really doing; research.   Research is what scientists do when they want to learn about things.  When we don’t know about something, we can always look around to find the answers too.

Next, we discuss how we can find out.  Should we look online?  Do we have a book about the subject or a resource at home?  Is there someone we can ask?  Do we need to go to the library and find a book?  Should we take a field trip to a zoo, museum, or someplace else?  Then we look it up.  Together we go to the source we chose and find the answer.

Alright, so why bother?  It does sound like a lot of work when you could just make something up and get on with it.  Here’s why you should make the effort:

  1. Your kids will learn it’s ok to admit when you don’t know something.  All too often kids sit in the back of the classroom and refuse to raise their hands and admit when they don’t  know or don’t understand.  They would rather be confused and possibly fail than risk asking a question.
  2. It sets up their thinking for later in life.  In this age of STEM, we are trying to create a generation of people who are prepared for certain types of jobs, and therefore think a certain way.  The most basic foundations in science, technology, engineering and math are to pose questions and seek out the answers, so start them early!
  3. It teaches them to go find answers rather than accepting ignorance. Whether it’s a science fair project, a high school research paper, or a cure for cancer, they will need to come up with questions and find the answers, in a variety of different ways.  It is always easier to be passive in learning and accept what others tell you, but we want learners who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and get involved in their learning!
  4. It will make you smarter!  Every time you admit to your child that you don’t know an answer, and then go look it up, you  LEARN SOMETHING!  One of the greatest overall goals in education is to create life-long learners.  Adults who are not afraid to go out, ask some questions and keep learning.  What better way to teach this lesson to your child than by modeling it?
  5. It will help your relationship with your child.  Admitting that you don’t know all of the answers not only teaches your child to do the same but it makes you more relatable.  Knowing that their parents are not perfect and do not always have all the answers will help your child feel more comfortable with you and with asking for help.  They will know that you do it, and so they can to! Not to mention all of the great bonding that can happen while you go find your answers!
  6. It is the basis of child-led learning.  If you’ve been looking to do more child directed instruction, this is a great place to start.  Researching one great question (What did dinosaurs eat?) could lead you to the library for dinosaur books and movies, to add some dinos to your block area, a dinosaur costume to your dress up area, and maybe even a trip to a natural history museum or traveling dinosaur exhibit.  By the time you’re done your kid might know 30 types of dinosaurs and more facts than you ever did.  That one simple question could open the flood gates for a whole new interest or unit of study.  Or it could fizzle out before you boot up your computer.  It happens.  🙂

So I say, what the heck, give it a chance!  Spend a week saying “I don’t know” and doing a little bit of research with your kiddos, and see what happens.  Oh yeah, and don’t forget to tell us about it when you do!

*Side note- Yes, I use the word research with my 2 year old.  Not only does it build vocabulary, but I also think it helps to make “research” seem a little less scary, and like a less daunting task later on.  If kids learn early that research can be fun–a visit to the park for a field study of trees and leaves, or a trip to the zoo to observe animal behaviors– they may be less intimidated later on, and more likely to choose a career in the sciences.

Happy Learning!

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