Don’t Be Afraid of “I Don’t Know”

I’ve found that some of my best learning experiences have come after thinking or saying the phrase “I don’t know.” This phrase is required if learning is to take place. If you already know, you’re not really learning. Often though, we have an aversion to this phrase. It’s a phrase that always involves discomfort of varying degrees.

There’s the “Where are my keys?” variety of “I don’t know.” The level of discomfort isn’t too bad, depending on the situation: late or on time.

There’s the “What really makes a rhombus a rhombus?” variety of “I don’t know.” This one can cause a moderate  level of discomfort, depending on your familiarity with the content, but can provide a great opportunity for learning.

There’s the “What should three tiers of support really look like in mathematics?” variety. To me these are the best types of questions to which a response of “I don’t know” is awesome. They provide an opportunity to dig into a topic that is not usually discussed openly, or with enough honest conversation about barriers and specific ways to overcome them.

Of course, there’s also the “Where is the report I asked you for last week?” variety of “I don’t know.” This one kind of stinks because it usually indicates some sort of miscommunication or that someone dropped the ball.

I think we should be less apologetic about using the phrase when it’s used to create a sincere learning opportunity. So, throughout your day look for opportunities to think or say the phrase “I don’t know” (the productive middle varieties) and look forward to the mild discomfort and the learning that is to come.


  1. Thank you for sharing! There is a culture around teaching in general that makes teachers feel as if it’s not okay to not know it all! Not sure where that belief starts, maybe admin, colleagues, student’s parents, college, but I do know where it ends. We need to not only cultivate a growth mindset in our students, but in ourselves as well, and that might be a lot harder! Thanks again for writing!

    1. Thanks for your reply Jamie. I don’t know where this idea that we have to know everything comes from either. I agree that we have to develop a growth mindset in ourselves as well as fostering this stance in students. In both instances, it’s so worth it for the learning that results.

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