The Real Meaning of "I Don't Know"
"I don't know." I hear it at least once every day from one of my students; usually more than once. Sometimes, I even hear it multiple times from the same student in the same lesson! I hate the phrase "I don't know." Not because "not knowing" is bad or wrong, but because spouting off "I don't know" is almost always a cop out.
In the beginning, I used to take "I don't know" at face value, but as I continued working with students, I realized that most of the time when a student tells me "I don't know", they don't really mean "I don't know".
"I don't know" is a cop out
It did not take me long to figure out that when a student says "I don't know", they really mean one of four things:
I do not immediately know the answer, therefore I will put in zero effort to try to recall what the answer could be.
I have an idea of what the answer might be, but I am not 100% sure, so I will play ignorant to avoid the embarrassment of possibly being incorrect.
They do know, they just don't realize it.
They genuinely do not know.
The Symptoms of "I Don't Know"
#1 No Effort
When students read a question and then say "I don't know" IMMEDITATELY after finishing the question, then they are not trying. Putting in no effort at all is completely unacceptable to me, and the one that irritates me the most. It is just lazy. When a kid uses this "I don't know", they are trying to get me, the tutor, (or potentially you, the parent helping with homework) to do everything for them.
They are trying to take advantage, either consciously or unconsciously, of the fact that you, or me, or their teacher are there to help them, and that we genuinely want them to understand whatever they are learning.
It is so easy to fall into the trap of "well if they don't know, I'll just give them a little hint." Then, the kid keeps saying "I don't know" at every hint until all the sudden you realize that you answered the entire question for them! They got the answer with almost no effort on their part other than some subtle manipulation.
#2 Not 100% Sure
When a student reads a question and then hems and haws for a bit, they spit out a couple of "uuuuummmmmssss", and then finally settle on "I don't know", this usually means they have an idea but they aren't totally sure.
This kind of "I don't know" I am a little more compassionate toward. As a recovering perfectionist, I know the deep gurgling gut ache of being wrong, ESPECIALLY in front of someone else.
This kind of "I don't know" usually requires a gentle nudge in the right direction and a reminder that it is OK to be wrong. I reassure my students that I will not think anything less of them if they get the answer wrong, and in fact I would be more disappointed if they didn't at least try.
That "I might be wrong" kind of feel
Nobody really likes being wrong because it can be embarrassing. Many kids, teenagers in particular, will do anything to avoid embarrassment. If you create a safe space and your kids trust you, then they are more willing to be wrong in front of you.
#3 They know....but don't know that they know
This kind of "I don't know" usually just comes from a misunderstanding of what is being asked, or an overcomplication of the question.
For example, yesterday I was doing a math problem with a student. We were trying to find how many small boxes could fit inside a large box if the volumes were known. His issue was that the volume of the large box was 80/9 cubic inches and the volume of the small box was 1/27 cubic inches. He was trying to tell me that he didn't know how to solve it, but I knew that to be false.
I simplified it for him. "Let's pretend the volume of the large box is 10 and the volume of the small box is 2. How many small boxes could fit in the large box?" Obviously, he immediately answered with gusto, "5!" The issue wasn't that he "didn't know" how to solve the problem, the issue was that the fractions were intimidating him, so he convinced himself that he didn't know what to do.
Usually, just having them reread the question carefully, or offering a simpler question that is answered in the exact same manner will unlock the kiddo's mind.
#4 They genuinely don't know
I want to reiterate that it is perfectly acceptable to "not know". Nobody can know everything. But before I accept "I don't know" as an answer, I want to make sure that the person I am working with understands the question being asked, feels as safe as possible in answering, and has put in a sufficient amount of effort to at least try to find a solution. Only then will I relent on "I don't know" and jump in with some answers.
Nobody can know everything. It's science.
Why "I Don't Know" Can Be So Damaging
"I don't know" is an insidious beast. As an educator, I genuinely want to turn all of my students' "I don't knows" into easy answers. I know many parents feel the same way. But it is so easy for kids to manipulate this desire to help. And the more their manipulations work, the more they realize that they can get away with minimal effort.
Unfortunately, giving kids the answers just teaches them learned helplessness. They never have to try because they know that eventually someone else will step in and do it for them. Learned helplessness is a dangerous habit to build because whenever your kiddo runs into the slightest adversity and no white knight comes riding in to save the day, then they crumble immediately. This is how you create unemployed 40-year-olds living in their parents' basement eating flaming hot Cheetos and playing video games all day.
What we have to do is turn "I don't know" into "I will find out".
The Remedy to "I Don't Know"
Whenever one of my students tells me "I don't know", the first thing I always say is, "Well if you did know, what would you say?" I love this phrase because it does two things really well.
First, it does not deny their reality. Most people hate it when someone else dictates their own internal experience to them. Imagine if you are upset and angry and shouting, and someone tells you to "calm down" or "relax". How does that usually go over? Telling a student "Yes, you know, so tell me the answer," when they are telling you that they do not know can breed a hostile environment. "Well if you did know" keeps their reality intact and disarms any hostility.
Second, it invites them to an alternate reality where they DO know the answer. It is an invitation to play a game. Sure, you can argue with me that you do not know the answer, but you cannot argue with me that you cannot PRETEND to know the answer.
My students HATE when I say this to them, because they know the logic is inescapable. It's like saying, "Yes, it is a globally known worldwide fact that you do not know, but let's just pretend like you do know...just for funsies...and let's see what happens." Nobody can argue with that.
Let's pretend that you DO know the answer!
At this point, they usually at least TRY to think of an answer. If they are unsure, they may stutter and stall. If they still do not offer anything, then I will say, "Well just take a guess. It's OK if you are wrong." It is shocking how often their "guess" is correct. Then I usually follow up with, "Wow! For someone that "didn't know", you are an incredible guesser. What are the odds?!" This usually wins a smile from their faces. They just needed a little encouragement to trust their own minds.
If they STILL won't offer anything after I ask them to guess, then they probably genuinely do not know. This is fine! Instead of giving them the answer, I say, "Alright if you don't know, then you need to look it up." I teach them to find the answers on their own. This approach enables them to become their own tutors, because they build the skills necessary to trust themselves to find the answers without someone else saving them.
My goal as an educator is to turn every "I don't know" into a "I will find out". This attitude builds future self-starters, leaders, and people that can trust and rely on themselves. I invite you to join me in this quest and for every "I don't know" that you turn into a "I will find out", you will help build a better future for your kids and for the world they will create.