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.

The Value of All Subjects

An important point was raised in this episode of Crash Course: European History:

“The question isn’t just how to build a bridge; it’s where to build a bridge.”

In other words, subjects like history, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, philosophy, literature, and art are just as important as STEM subjects. These subjects are often undervalued or even derided as pointless. But they are just as essential to our civilization as more “practical” subjects.

Science and technology are powerful tools, capable of benefiting us all. But if we don’t have citizens capable of thinking carefully about how to direct those tools, we might use them to create immense harm. The Nazi war machine comes to mind.

We need the capacity to extract and use the Earth’s resources, but we also need the collective will to use those resources sustainably and distribute them equitably.

At the end of that episode, John Green points out that there is a difference between what we know how to do and what we actually do. There are many things that we can do, such as build bridges and schools or prevent and cure diseases, that we nonetheless fail to do because we’ve collectively put our priorities elsewhere.

So it’s not enough to have engineers and doctors; we also need citizens and leaders who are willing and able to direct the expertise of engineers and doctors to the benefit of humanity. And that will require educational systems that value the humanities.

These subjects are not impractical. They are not a waste of time.

There is value in all of the subjects.

Learning Styles vs. Universal Principles

The concept of learning styles has been around for decades, and there are many variations of it, but the most popular version was created in the early 1990’s by Neil Fleming.1 His VARK questionnaire sorts people into four different learning styles: “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic.”1 Perhaps you identify as one of these types. Personally, I self-identified as an auditory learner when I was taught about learning styles in middle school.

The idea is really popular. As recently as 2014, “more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries believed it.”1 And it’s understandable why people like the idea of learning styles. It appeals to our sense of individuality, and it offers a clear way to improve education: teach to students’ learning styles and they’ll do better. Unfortunately, the ideas we like don’t always turn out to be true.

When a team of eminent researchers surveyed all the existing literature on learning styles in 2009, they found that most of the studies had terribly flawed study design, and the few that were well designed failed to show that learning styles mattered.2 More recent studies have also refuted the supposed power of learning styles. For example, one gave students the VARK questionnaire and then provided them with study strategies that matched their learning style.1 The results? Most didn’t change their study habits, and those who did didn’t show any improvement.1

Another recent study seemed to refute the very idea that learning styles exist at all. It “found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they’d remember words better. But those preferences had no correlation to which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures. Essentially, all the ‘learning style’ meant, in this case, was that the subjects liked words or pictures better, not that words or pictures worked better for their memories.”1

So if teaching to students learning styles doesn’t help, and studying in ways that match your learning style doesn’t help, what does work?

One answer is matching the teaching style to the content itself. For example, even if you’re the most visual person in the world, you can’t learn to hear and speak Spanish correctly just by looking at it. Likewise, it’s pretty tough to make reading literature kinesthetic, and it’s impossible to learn tennis aurally. Some of the things we want to learn have to be presented in a particular way, regardless of the audience’s preferences.

Another answer is to do all the things – to teach and study via as many avenues as possible. We do have research that supports the idea that stronger memories are formed when you involve as many of your senses as possible.3 If you can see it, hear it, read it, say it, and do something with it, you’ll form a stronger memory.3 Touch, smell, and taste are harder to come by in the classroom (and downright dangerous in Chemistry class), but these can be included on occasion. And of all the senses, vision is the most powerful; we remember far more when images are included in teaching.3 It’s not too surprising, then, that one of the recent studies found that people who claim to be visual learners tend to do better on all types of tests.1 So even if you don’t think of yourself as a visual learner, you’d probably benefit from acting like one: Seek out images, draw diagrams, and picture things in your mind because it will help you form strong memories.

And that last bit gets to what I think is the best answer to our question: Apply universal principles. There are study techniques that we know work, like spaced repetition, self-testing, teaching it to someone else, and making written product.4 We know that classroom instruction needs to be engaging to hold kids’ attention.3 And homework needs to involve a better mix of massed practice and interleaving.

But while you’re waiting for the science of learning to make its way into the classroom, remember that you can proactively take learning into your own hands. If you find the lectures to be boring, you can ask questions to stay engaged or treat them as an opportunity to grow your focus muscle. If you’re not finding the instruction and the homework sufficient to understand and remember what you’re learning, you can choose to do whatever it takes to convince your brain to care. And if school isn’t forcing you to master the skills you need, you can choose to walk the mastery path yourself.

1 Khazan, Olga. “The Myth of ‘Learning Styles’.” The Atlantic. April 11, 2018.

2 “Learning Styles Debunked: There is No Evidence Supporting Auditory and Visual Learning, Psychologists Say.” Association for Psychological Science. December 16, 2009.

3 Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press, 2008.

4 Oakley, Barbara. A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra). Penguin, 2014.