It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
– President Abraham Lincoln
Pay attention, because you won’t hear this next sentence from me again. Abe was wrong.
Peter Senge writes, “School trains us never to admit that we do not know the answer, and most corporations reinforce that lesson by rewarding the people who excel in advocating their views, not inquiring into complex issues.”
If this is the case, Senge’s other supposition that business leaders are trained to ignore systems thinking or see issues more deeply because of similar school training, an amazing opportunity exists for teachers.
I struggled with this all through the school year. On vocabulary quizzes, I asked students to use each word in a meaningful sentence to demonstrate their ability to use a word in context.
“Even if you don’t know,” I would tell them, “write something down.”
My mom always said, “If you don’t ask, then the answer is always ‘no,’” and I was attempting to apply the same logic to the quiz.
No matter how emphatically, personally and repeatedly I urged, students left blanks on their papers.
Later, I’d inquire as to why.
“I didn’t know it.”
“You realize, writing anything down gave you more of a chance than leaving it blank?”
I went out of my mind.
Senge sums up the problem nicely.
My students weren’t showing me they didn’t know the answer. They would have to write something down to do that. Instead, they were showing me they could choose not to write an answer.
Setting aside all I could have done to improve their learning of the vocabulary, let’s focus on what I could have done – what all teachers can do – to improve the rate of response when students feel they are in the dark.
The best answer for my money is giving classroom credence to some variation of “I don’t know, but here’s my best guess.”
“Even if we feel uncertain or ignorant, we learn to protect ourselves from the pain of appearing uncertain of ignorant,” Senge writes.
Certainly, by the time I met them in high school, my students have learned the survival techniques.
Creating a classroom culture that honors “I don’t know” is a difficult proposition. It works against the majority of what students have been taught and what led most teachers to the classroom. We are there because we knew and kept right on knowing until we were charged helping others know.
If our students sense even a fragment of that path on us as we walk in the door, imagine the intimidation they could feel.
A student once admitted to me the reason she hadn’t turned in a single assignment for the first month of class was that she worried nothing would be good enough.
Yes, some of this rests in the foibles of the students, but a chunk of it belongs to me. My job was to make “I don’t know,” cool and to set a tone that helped students see value in whatever they created.
Eventually, the student began submitting work, but it pains me to think of what I missed in that month.
The four most powerful words in any classroom should be, “I don’t know, but…”