“I Don’t Know, But Let’s Find Out Together”

I dontknow


“Where do creative and innovative ideas come from?  I mean, is it a step by step process? Or does a flash of inspiration strike a learner in a moment of utter clarity? How does one get to be innovative? Are you born with it? Do you learn it?”

These are questions that my son, Gabe asked recently. We were on a beach holiday a few weeks ago and his firing squad of questions has been on my mind ever since.

Gabe is a very bright and very studious young man. He enjoys his tech and sci-fi movies. He loves to dabble inGabe gamer chats and Twitter chats (with his mama) too. We often discuss education, though sadly, he has clearly mentioned he will not be an educator. He believes that learners have a voice and strongly feels that educators need to listen more to their learners. Gabe and I were discussing innovation and I mentioned how important it is to allow time for learners to tinker and encourage them to innovate. You never know what ideas learners can come up with and where that will lead us globally. He was intrigued by this, hence the questions.

As a questioner myself, I took a moment to think about them all. His questioning came on so strong, one right after the other, without a moment to breathe or think. A few minutes later, I simply answered, “I don’t know, Gabe.”

“You don’t know?” his eyebrows lifted above the rim of his glasses. I took notice of the look of pure surprise on his face, he truly looked stunned. I am sure it was not the first time I had answered him this way. Why the look?

“That’s it? That’s your answer?”he asked unsatisfied.

I smiled, nodded my head and bit my lip, “Yes, …and that’s a good answer”, I replied.

As I sat there, and stared at my 15 year old, I started thinking: how many times do we give a “best guess” to a series of difficult questions? Did he want me to guess an answer? Maybe he wanted me to Google it? Did he want me to “bs” him? You know, give him a round about answer of “it could be because of this…that…and maybe …”. I’m quite proud of his ability to formulate a strong question. I respect him and his ability to do that, as my son and as a learner. I thought I answered him well. However, I could see in his reaction that my response was disappointing and puzzling to him.

Is it a good thing to admit you do not know the answer to a question? 

Like most things in life, I think it depends on many variables. It might depend on the context of the conversation, the personalities, who you are speaking with, your familiarity with the topic and a whole host of other variables that may influence the outcome.

I feel some of us who are in positions to provide answers, solutions or solve problems may be afraid of the phrase: “I don’t know.”  In reality, those 3 little words hold a lot of power. It is an honest expression. It is a genuine expression of your lack of knowledge of a topic. When stated truthfully, those words can build trust. Why is it that this phrase can leave some disappointed and leave those reciting it, embarrassed? Why can we not accept “I don’t know” as a viable answer?

Learners anticipate answers from teachers; they expect it. Some answers satisfy, others don’t. It is our responsibility as life long learners to admit when we don’t know something, but more imperative to provide guidance on how to find that answer.


As an educator, I feel you need not have all the answers on the spot. The smartest people in the room know when a question is beyond their knowledge and understand the power of consulting with others and learning together. They know the answer, “I don’t know” is acceptable, it’s truthful. Most importantly, it can lead to powerful learning and thinking. The collaboration and relationship it can build with the learner, is unmatched. As educators we should commit to answering the unknown together with our learners. It is far better to admit you do not know something than make something up and hope they do not call your bluff. The next time you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid or embarrassed.  Instead just say “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.”