Tuesday, July 21, 2015

More About "I Don't Know"

Last week, I posted a piece entitled "I Don't Know," which sparked a Facebook exchange with John Green, the man responsible for the excellent early childhood blog Papa Green Bean, about the power of the phrase "I don't know."

Back in the 1980's, I worked in public relations. Part of my job was talking to reporters on behalf of the Seattle business community, or at least those who were members of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. I felt I needed to know all the answers and got myself in trouble a few times because I tried to slickly answer questions even when I wasn't sure. Fortunately, I got to work with many of the highest paid PR executives in the area, one of whom pulled me aside after an embarrassing mistake to tell me, "One of the most important things to learn about this profession is to say 'I don't know, but I'll find out for you.'"

Of course, there was cynicism baked into that counsel because he was suggesting I use it as a kind of catch-all response to anything that made me uncomfortable or when I wanted to buy some time, but the core of the advice is something I've carried with me ever since. It was a real epiphany for this young man to realize that saying, "I don't know," especially when it's the truth, is not a sign of weakness, but rather of strength.

But it wasn't until I became a father that I really began to understand the power of "I don't know." Instead of just winging it, instead of just providing knee-jerk know-it-all responses to the questions my little girl would ask, I answered, "I don't know," often followed by, "But we can find out." 

"Why is the sky blue?" "I don't know, but we can find out."

"Do worms hatch from eggs?" "I don't know, but we can find out."

"How many days until Christmas?" "I don't know, but we can find out."

Of course, what makes this particularly powerful is to then actually find out, which becomes the process of learning about atmosphere and color, biology, and calendars. The best education always follows the children's questions.

Sometimes the questions are about opinions or other things that are not so easy to "find out." To those I learned to append the question, "What do you think?"

"Are there people on other planets?" "I don't know, what do you think?"

"Why was she mean to me?" "I don't know, what do you think?"

"What happens when people die?" "I don't know, what do you think?"

Yes, we have our own opinions and thoughts about these things, but because they're not provable, at least not given our current state of scientific or psychological or spiritual knowledge, our responses are, at best, educated guesses. These are questions that can only be answered through the thought experiments of conversation. "What do you think?" opens the door to the kind of free and honest exchange of ideas that form the basis of critical thinking, of thinking for oneself. As both a parent and as a teacher, I've heard many answers to this question that jar, puzzle, or even outrage me, but I strive to remain calm, to not freak out, to not launch into a scolding lecture, because there is no surer way to shut a child down, both now and in the future, than to cause them to fear that their honestly held opinion or theory will be declared "wrong." Better, I've found, is to continue to inquire, to continue to listen, and, as a peer in this exploration into the unknowable, I can then offer my own opinions or theories, not by way of "correcting" her, but by sharing, the way she is sharing with me.

My daughter and I have discussed religion and sex in this way, race and drugs, social dynamics and politics. She has said many things that caused my heart to race and my mind to seeth, but I've tried to fight the urge to shut down the conversation by being right or righteous, because I know that I didn't come to my own ideas about the world through being lectured or scolded, but rather by thinking for myself. I may really want her to believe as I do, to share my opinions, but I can't command her to do it. I can only help her along her journey, listening, and honestly sharing my own thoughts and experiences. 

Today, I find I agree with my teenager on the most important things even if that hasn't always been the case. We got there through the dialog that opens when we're not afraid to say, "I don't know."

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Deborah McGauley said...

I just had this conversation with my brother and his daughter, who is going away to her first job after college graduation. Love my brother but he and his wife tend to need to know all the answers, deny if they are wrong , etc. and she of course has picked up on this over the years. I explained it's really OK, no judgement, to say 'I dont know'. 'I'm confused' or 'Can you help me?' in the most vulnerable way/sense, not just in the informative way. She is embarking on so many unknown missions in order to set up her adult life, she needs to see, as I wish they would, that there will be no catastrophic situation to that very honest response. thnx for all you do Tom..Debbie

Margaret Swartzman said...

Nicely stated Tom. Opening up dialog is so important. The USA needs to learn this simple way of looking at each other.

Hilde Stroobants said...

In Teaching for Thinking Robert Sternberg described 7 different levels of answering children's questions. Providing an answer and telling them 'we don't know' both sit at level three, then followed by different forms of 'let's look it up' and 'what do you think, how can we find out, and let's go find out' to fill in levels 4 to 7. I was reminded of this when I read your blog and thought: what a wonderful way to bring it into practice. I always thought the power was in the 'let's go find out', but you make me realise it needs to start from the 'I don't know'. Thanks!

John S Green said...

Thanks for sharing my blog, Tom.

Using 'I don't know' with young children opens up the honesty channel for greater communication. When children know they can trust you they are able to become themselves and blossom without self-doubt. 'I don't know' is very powerful in all relationships.

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