173. Not Knowing

Children often look up to us for answers, and sometimes, we don’t know the answers. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. And it’s nothing to hide. Hiding lack of knowledge sets a bad example for children. Children have all kinds of things they don’t know, and they can quickly pick up the habit of concealing their ignorance, especially if they see adults doing it. And when they conceal their ignorance, they’re harder to teach.
But we do conceal some of our ignorance, and they know that. In fact, “ignorance” has come to carry a derogatory connotation, which I don’t think it deserves, and the concept that goes with the word has a bad reputation, too. So sometimes, instead of saying “I don’t know,” we speculate, we make up answers, or we say “Let’s look it up” with a tone that implies that we do know – that we’re cleverly sneaking in some teaching of research skills.
So far, in these articles,I usually only confess to the human foibles I know are fairly common. I know that pretending to know is a common foible, so I feel okay about admitting that I’ve done it. I’ll let you know about my other foibles as soon as I’m sure they’re common. It may be nice to have children think we know everything, but that illusion is short-lived, and I usually try to help children get beyond it. I don’t have to pretend I don’t know things; there are lots of things I actually don’t know, and children are pretty good at asking the questions that uncover those things.
I’m not saying that teachers have a responsibility, for children’s sake, to make sure they don’t know much. Ignorance is an ever-flowing river, and we’re in no danger that it will run dry. Omniscience is far out of reach; we’ll often hear questions we can’t answer. Occasionally, it is good to hold back some knowledge – if a child wants to know something she/he can find out fairly independently with a reasonable amount of time and energy, that’s not a time for a teacher to supply the answer. Of course, it’s a judgment call – sometimes a child should look it up in the dictionary, encyclopedia, or some other resource book. Sometimes it just takes a little extra thinking. Maybe an intelligent experiment will lead to a good answer. But maybe the child wants/needs to know right away, or will be content to live with ignorance. Skillfully deciding when and when not to answer children’s questions is one of the many arts/sciences involved in teaching children.
But sometimes that’s not the question; sometimes the teacher just doesn’t know. I do believe that it’s good for children to hear, once in a while, that their mentors have bits of the universe they have not yet come to understand – that we’re not answering because we can’t. What we mentors do about our areas of ignorance once we reveal them is important, too, but the vital first step is to come clean with an honest “I don’t know.”

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