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How saying “I don’t know” can facilitate a child’s discovery


October 24, 2019

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Penrhos College

by Lee Watanabe-Crockett.

Being a parent doesn’t mean you have to know everything. In fact, finding the best way of saying “I don’t know” can transform learning for your child.

There come times in all our lives when we get tripped up by a question. We pause, we panic, we improvise – we do whatever we’ve been conditioned to do, to fill that ponderous silence. But why? Are we afraid of looking stupid? Do we feel we have to have all the answers?

So, you don’t have an immediate answer. So, what?

Whether we know the answer or not, the point is that there are always ways to find out – and more today than ever before. If you have a smartphone, you can get an answer to just about anything in under 10 seconds. It’s the deeper questions, not the trivial ones, that really have us doubting ourselves when we can’t respond to our curious child – the kind of questions our learners can hit us with at any time. And here’s the truth – you’re not always going to be ready.

Saying “I don’t know” can be a powerful tool for promoting independent thinking and encouraging discovery when teaching your child.

The power of saying “I don’t know”

According to Irena Nayfeld, a professional development workshop facilitator, questions give us a choice of paths. Once students ask a question, says Irena, there are three paths a teacher can take when they don’t have an answer:

  1. Ignore the question or tell the student now is not the time.
  2. Answer the question as best as you can, even though it may be vague
  3. Say “I don’t know, but that’s a great question – how can we find out?”

Obviously, the first is the least appealing. After all, the goal in education isn’t to discourage curiosity but rather to provoke it.

Some would argue that the second choice is a viable one, and in some cases it may be. The problem is that even with the best intentions, the results can be detrimental as learners may be led astray with incomplete or only partially correct information, despite your best efforts.

So, what if embrace your fear of not knowing, and use it to your learners’ advantage by agreeing to join them on the journey of discovery.

“When you are not sure of the answer, use it as an opportunity to model curiosity,” suggests Irena. It’s not about turning the question back on students; it’s about showing your willingness to facilitate their discovery. It happens in three distinct steps:

  1. Recognition: “Hmm, I’m not exactly sure.”
  2. Expression: “That’s actually a really good question.”
  3. Provocation: “How would you begin trying to find out the answer? How can we find it together?”

This approach demonstrates to your students that when you don’t have an answer to something, you go and find it. In the world beyond school, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to provide all the answers for you. Yet ironically, the traditional role of the teacher or adult has always been just that – the keeper of all knowledge. Happily, that role is being reshaped as a facilitator for learning or a model of curiosity. It all begins with saying “I don’t know”.

Embracing the unknown

Learning isn’t always simple, but the journey can be more enjoyable by forgoing expectations of having all the answers. There’s a beauty in not knowing; opportunities for discovery are presented to prepare you for the journey of finding out the truth no matter what it takes.

Embrace not knowing with your child – it may lead you and your learners to far better answers than you expected.

Written by Lee Watanabe-Crockett.

Penrhos College Junior School has earned international acclaim in its quest to shift practice and improve student engagement under the consultation of Global Digital Citizen Foundation founder Lee Watanabe Crockett since 2017. Learn more at his website globaldigitalcitizen.org/


Penrhos College is an independent, all-girls school in Perth. Penrhos’ extensive offering starts in the Early Learning Centre, through to Junior and Secondary School. Penrhos is a day and boarding school for girls located in Como, South Perth WA.