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What If We Don't Have the Answers?


Expert of all things in our subject areas, right?

Beacon of knowledge and sage of decision-making practices associated with appropriate life skills for the age group we spend the most time with, of course.

Or no?

Earlier in my career, this was threatening. Embarrassed that answers didn't come quickly, I often deflected, trying to BS my way through the answer, hoping they wouldn't notice.

But adolescents are keen detectors of BS (as they are honing their own skills at the time) and they could tell and I'd grow rosy and change the subject.

19 years in and my approach to not knowing has changed considerably.

Now, I embrace it.

It's an opportunity for me to grow and for us to grow together.

Rather than deflect, I stop what we're doing and I either turn the question back on them or I say, "why don't we look that up together?"

Just yesterday, my AP class was having a discussion about Polonius as we were talking about his role as a parent versus Gertrude and I spoke up about his marital status and then wasn't sure if I made the right assertion. I promptly looked it up online and then returned to revise my answer by the end of the conversation.

Students need to see that it's okay to not know. Modeling this as an adult is essential to how students see themselves and how they learn to self-correct when they make mistakes and more importantly that they don't label themselves as stupid when they don't know.

In addition to learning that adults don't know everything and that's okay, students learn how to acquire the knowledge they need. As educators, this is the more important and appropriate job now, explicitly teaching kids to find answers to what they don't know.

Think of all the skills they can learn by just figuring stuff out:

  • good research skills, learning how to use Google effectively (you can teach that)

  • learning how to vet the sources you find... when is information good?

  • curation skills on how to organize the information they find meaningfully

  • critical thinking skills - they have to know what to look for

  • problem-solving skills - where to go to find what they need

  • confidence-building and assertiveness

  • independence

  • reflection

What if as teachers, we showed students that it is impossible to know everything? This doesn't make us stupid or ignorant, it just makes us human.

How do you deal with questions you can't answer? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week blog in March 2015

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