What It Really Means When a Student Says “I Don’t Know”

Not knowing is an essential step in the learning process, but that does not always make saying the words “I don’t know” easy. Acknowledging a lack of knowledge is like stepping into the garden of our brain and pulling the tarp off of a brand new patch of dirt. We have to do this in order to ready the soil and begin to sow the seeds of knowledge which, with care and attention, will soon fill the once empty plot with roots and lush green foliage. But it can be embarrassing to see peers with already flourishing gardens where yours is bare. You might peek beneath the plastic at your little patch of earth, your stomach twisting in knots, and vow to never ever take the tarp off. This means, of course, that any knowledge you do accumulate will remain at the surface level. Unable to take root, it will eventually wither, nullifying the time and effort you may have spent.

I often work with students who are nervous about admitting that they don’t know something. Scratch that, I often work with people who are nervous about admitting that they don’t know something. In fact, I myself am often anxious about appearing ignorant. At one point or another, I think we all have been guilty of nodding along to a conversation we only half understand, hoping nobody will notice. But in doing this, we shut down part of our capacity to be open and active learners. This is a shame because really, “I don’t know” moments are anything but shameful; they are enriching opportunities to create solid foundations and invite curiosity. By cultivating a sense of normalcy and encouraging bravery around these moments, we can work together to begin to till that soil.

On the other end of the spectrum, for some students “I don’t know” has become as routine an answer as “fine.” Consider the following conversation:

Coach: “How are you doing?”

Student: “Fine.”

Coach: “Great. How is school going?”

Student: “Fine.”

Coach: “Cool. So, what are we working on today?”

Student: “I don’t know.”

Coach: “Shall we continue reading then?”

Student: “Fine.”

Coach: “What do you think might happen next?”

Student: “I don’t know.”

These students are pulling their tarps off, but then they stand there and shrug their shoulders. They don’t necessarily see it is their responsibility to begin the work of planting their garden. To be clear, this behavior is just as understandable and relatable as reflexively hiding a knowledge gap. Especially in the world of online school, it can be hard to stoke interest and energy levels to the point of being actively engaged at all times. For some students, simply turning up for class is what they can give at this moment, and that is appreciated. But others may not have realized that they have fallen into an “I don’t know” routine or what that might mean for their learning. In either case, seeing a reflexive “I don’t know” as a habit of avoidance that can be worked through can make all the difference.

But there is a twist. Those serial “I don’t know-ers”? The knee-jerk knowledge gap coverers? The culprits tend to be the same students, often within the same session. How is this possible, when I have so far discussed them as two opposite ends of a spectrum? It turns out that seeing “I don’t know” as a nerve-racking confession or using it as a matter of routine are both ways of taking a step back from active learning. They may be opposites, but they are opposite ends of the same spectrum: disengagement. Inviting a student to acknowledge an “I don’t know” moment is not about stewing in confusion. Likewise, encouraging a student to push past “I don’t know” is never about insisting on an immediate increase in their knowledge level. In both cases, the goal is to flip that brain switch from passive to active.

“I don’t know” is an important phrase, but it is not as important as what comes afterward. To create a successful learning experience, it must be followed up by a desire to fill that space. Ignorance can indeed be fertile soil, but only if we are willing to accept it for what it is and then put in the work to nourish it into what it can become.

About Leah Jarvik

Leah is a coach with NWES with a special focus on reading and writing support. She has also worked with students through organizations including the Seattle Children’s Theatre, Queen Anne Elementary School, Audubon, and abroad in Galway, Ireland, where she had the opportunity to study education and literacy. Outside of her education work, Leah is an actor, writer, and administrator, currently working with Macha Theatre Works to bring fearless female theatre to the stage. She graduated from Haverford College in 2019 with a double major in English and Theatre.

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