The Power of “I don’t know.”

One of my favorite songs by Fred Rogers is “Did You Know?

Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know that it’s all right to wonder?
Did you know that it’s all right to wonder?
There are all kinds of wonderful things!

Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know that it’s all right to marvel?
Did you know that it’s all right to marvel?
There are all kinds of marvelous things!

You can ask a lot of questions about the world…
And your place in it.
You can ask about people’s feelings;
You can learn the sky’s the limit.

Did you know? Did you know?
Did you know when you wonder you’re learning?
Did you know when you marvel you’re learning?
About all kinds of wonderful,
About all kinds of marvelous,
Marvelously wonderful things?

Many teachers in our Educators’ Neighborhood Learning Community love this song and sing it with their students. The importance of wonder and asking questions is nothing new to educators. Early Childhood educators especially, know how to allow opportunities for children’s “why?” and “how?” and “hmm…” and “oh, my!”

That said, living and teaching in 2020 is full of more “why? – how? – hmm – oh, my!” moments than most of us ever thought we’d experience at once. Navigating so many questions alongside the range of emotions they bring is challenging, and extra challenging for those who are helpers caring for children. In the midst of such challenges, educators (including parents and caregivers) are finding beautiful ways to be honest with children, bring their full selves to their conversations, and allow “I don’t know” to be a powerful piece of their practice.

 

Be real and honest:

Children need to see that adults do not always have the answers and that’s ok. It’s ok to not know all of the answers all of the time. I think it helps us to seem more real to Learners. Sometimes there are just not answers to big questions and Learners need to know that even adults wonder about the “whys” of the world.

-Shimae O’Hara, Kindergarten teacher, Waynesboro Area School District, Pennsylvania

 

By telling my students “I don’t know” I become more real to them. I always follow up “I don’t know” by telling them I will look for the answer and promise to come back to their question or concern. I believe by being honest and admitting there are just some things teachers may not have the answer to connects you to your students. Showing them your truthfulness allows them to feel safe being truthful as well.

-Cara Remmick, Grade 2 teacher, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania

 

I feel like I have said “I don’t know” A LOT over these past several months! One phrase I repeated often in my communication with [partners] was “I don’t know how, but I do know we can figure it out together.” I’ve said it to my own children as well. I really think it’s important to always validate the question, and to answer as honestly as you can. Sometimes you don’t know, and that’s ok. And I think that people, no matter how young or old, just like that reassurance that whatever the problem or issue is that they are facing, they don’t have to face it alone. I know I do!

-Liz Kostandinu, WQED Education, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

 

Allow “I don’t know” to open possibilities for learning:

I, like everyone else, have said that a lot to a lot of different populations in the past several months. I have found that when I say it to the kids in my class that they try to figure out the answer, and we end up having conversations led more by them than by me. I enjoy listening more and talking less. I think it empowers them, that they can contribute just as an adult does, and they seem to feel proud that they are teaching me.

-Carin Blair, preK teacher, Alexandria, Virginia

 

I’ve felt that the last six months has been a lot of “I don’t know!” I’ve had my own child (age 7) asking questions about COVID and I don’t have the answers. So, we decided to research it together. It has been very interesting to watch my own child learn how to “look something up.” In my classroom we are just finishing our unit on apples and beginning our unit on pumpkins in our science groups. One student asked me today “why does the apple have a star in the middle for the seeds?” I honestly don’t know! Why a star? Why not a circle? The child then asked if pumpkins will have seeds in a star. We decided as a class to spend next week comparing apples and pumpkins before diving into the life cycle of a pumpkin.

-Jessica Peterson, preK teacher, Salt Lake City, Utah

 

[Reflecting on an observation of a small group of children who] transformed the dramatic play area into a “Finding Out Center” and asked adults in their lives to send questions so that they could be “Finderouters,” the children were not pleased and expressed that they did not like the questions. Their teacher asked if they could help her understand what they did not like about the questions. One child summed it up by saying, “Those people are asking questions that they know the answer to. We want questions that they don’t know the answer to.” Another child asserted, “Yeah, we are ‘Finderouters’, we want questions that NOBODY knows the answers to!”

-Amy Brereton, Vice President for Academics, Endeavor Schools

 

 Explore the why and how of questions:

Anytime I said “I don’t know” to my students or my own children I either explain why it’s something that I couldn’t possibly have the answer to or I follow up with “Let’s look that up.” For example, a question like “when will the virus be over?” I explain why I don’t know the answer and how it’s dependent on so many things. But a question like “How many species of dinosaurs are there?” I would say, “That’s a really good question and it’s something I don’t know the answer to. But I can look that up or we can ask [a friend].”

-Cecelia Midberry, preK teacher, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania

 

A few years ago, my niece asked me a question and I told her, “I don’t know.” You should have seen her face! Her reaction back was, “What? You’re a teacher, you are supposed to know.”  I almost felt embarrassed…. obviously, I know that I do not need to know everything. But it did open my eyes to the expectation that she had for me. Currently, my son is 3 and he LOVES to ask Why? […] I have learned to reply, “that’s a great question, what do you think?” And that seems to get us into a better conversation and explore the ways to find out why.

-Erica Nemzek, Early Learning Coordinator, Waynesboro Area School District, Pennsylvania

 

Remember, it will be okay:

I must have said the words 1,000 times since March…”I don’t know” to family, friends, fellow teachers, parents and children. We are all in disequilibrium right now… I don’t know if we’ll have Thanksgiving together… I don’t know if I’ll be able to attend a wedding… I don’t know how to embed that link on a slide and share it in pear deck… I don’t know why my microphone just stopped working…. I don’t know if I’ll be your child’s teacher in a month when we return to school. For each and every “I don’t know” I have said, it is always followed up with, “But it will be okay.” I truly believe that it will be.

-Chris Hulse, Kindergarten teacher, Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia

 

It is okay to say “I don’t know” to children. And it’s okay to experience not-knowing yourself, in all the ways that this might mean to you. But more than being okay, saying “I don’t know” to children is a powerful gift. It allows children to feel safe with their own not-knowing, to be empowered in their agency to wonder and find answers themselves, and to connect with you—the caring adult in their lives—in an authentic, honest way.

Melissa A. Butler helps people slow down to notice more. She’s the project lead of Educators’ Neighborhood with the Fred Rogers Center. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog: Noticing Matters.

 

Resources to help children with “I don’t know”:

 

Songs:

A photo from the Lynn Johnson Collection, Ohio University Libraries.

Some Things I Don’t Understand

I Like to Be Told

I’m Interested in Things

Look and Listen

Today is New

What Can You Hear?

You’re Growing

 

Episodes:

Curiosity (#1751-1755)

Learning (#1651-1655)

Growing (#1631-1635)

 

Readings from Fred Unboxed:

Around the Neighborhood

Column #511-515

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