6 The Importance of Admitting You Don’t Know

A photo of Neil Gray
Figure 6.1: Neil Gray

Neil Gray

During my teaching career, there have been many instances in which a student has asked me a question that I couldn’t answer. Often, my inability to respond comes from the fact that I simply do not know the answer. In some cases, I don’t know because I learned the answer long ago and have forgotten. In other cases, I don’t know because I have never learned or even thought about it. I love questions I cannot answer because they indicate that the student is engaged in thoughtful consideration of the topic and because I know that I will also learn something from the exchange.

From my experience, one of the worst things you can do in a situation like this is to trivialize the student’s question as unimportant or unrelated. Why discourage the student from thinking beyond the topic presented? We should encourage any and all questions even vaguely related to the subject under consideration. Such unrestrained imagination and curiosity is an important part of learning. If we trivialize the student’s curiosity, we run the risk of derailing her learning experience. Every interaction with a student should be motivating in nature.

When asked a question that I don’t know the answer to, my response is always “I don’t know.

When asked a question that I don’t know the answer to, my response is always, “I don’t know.” I then praise the student for coming up with such a good question, and ask if I can think about it and get back to her. Afterwards, I make sure that I actually do so. I sometimes ask the student to also seek the answer and let me know if she finds it before I do. These are exceptional teaching opportunities that shouldn’t be missed.Another improper response would be to bluff your way through an answer that you know is incorrect. Although the immediate result might appear to be the maintenance of your position as an “expert,” a simple Google search will tear down that house of cards. This would likely cause the student to doubt other things you say. Trust is critical in the student-teacher relationship. The student must trust that you are giving him accurate information.

A photo of UT Tyler campus with overlayed text reading, "Do you use the Socratic method? Really?"
Figure 6.2: UT Tyler
A photo of Kenneth Roemer
Figure 6.3: Kenneth Roemer

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