Saying You Don’t Know Fuels the Desire to Find Out

It was with a fair dollop of trepidation I took to a stage last week at Edutech 2014 in Brisbane and shared some ideas about creative learning. Marginally due to the number of people, but mainly it was the fact that I had not done the keynote before, some new ideas / new keynote angst.

During my talk we explored the struggle for great pedagogy and the tension of creative learning. I outlined the need to dispel the myth that we are making such polarised choices about learning – the reality and the beauty of it is in the complexity.

I shared some research by Elizabeth Bonawitz, called the Double Edged Sword of Pedagogy that showed young learners are more likely to explore and discover for themselves if they are not taught all of the information. Their tendency to explore increases when adult instruction suggests there is more to find out.

Furthermore Bonawitz observed the emerging awareness to an instructional pedagogy even in youngsters:

“the results suggest a striking competence in young children: they are able to negotiate the trade-off between exploration and instruction such that they explore more when that can rationally infer that there is more information to be learned. Moreover, children demonstrate this competence remarkably early. By preschool, children seem actively to evaluate their teachers both for the knowledge they have and their ability to demonstrate it. Thus, well before children are immersed in formal education, they are sensitive to some conditions that promote effective instruction.”

Signalling that there is more to discover can be achieved by simply saying “I don’t know”. Not in any defeatist sense of closure but in one of open delight that there is much more to learn.

I have always believed that such a stance with learners should be a default option. Especially when we are fielding the questions they ask. In addition to encouraging further exploration we also encourage more questioning. Think of these questions as way-markers for that journey into a new land, over time they will leave a breadcrumb trail for us to look back upon and maybe for others to discover together.

Another important effect of saying “I don’t know” in terms of learning is the prolongment of the period of enquiry, providing more opportunities for further questions and discovery. If questions start everything a prolonged state of uncertainty maintains and deepens our thinking, as John Dewey outlined:

“To be genuinely thoughtful, we must be willing to sustain and protract that state of doubt which is the stimulus to thorough enquiry, so as not to accept an idea or make a positive assertion of a belief, until justifying reasons have been found.”

I thoroughly enjoyed sharing some of my ideas during the keynote and it has been lovely to have seen some of your feedback comments from those of you who were there. I will be exploring some more of the themes from my talk in future posts over on the NoTosh Facebook page and in much more detail here.


  1. I have search all over the web and found these websites which really justifies their names

  2. Back at school again is always the time when reality bites. I am pleased you enjoyed my keynote and that there is something to implement straight away. Asking the question is the starting point and then being able to facilitate and support, sometimes stepping completely back (SOLE) gives children the space to express themselves. Keep me posted about your endeavour 🙂

    Here is the link to the diagram Konrad made

  3. Thanks Robert – your encouragement is always so welcome. I think we are constantly thinking about ways to communicate how the big ideas and themes can be put into practice in the classroom. We all have to keep pushing, keep chipping away, keep moving people’s thinking onwards – the alternative is simply unpalatable.

  4. Thanks so much for your inspiring presentation at Edutech, Tom. You may have seen my school’s presentation (MRPS – journey to an inquiry-led, flexible learning environment) after lunch on the Wed… but what you had to say had some profound connections for me. You were quite correct in that curiosity needs to be harnessed to ignite that desire to learn – and possibly using Sugata Mitra’s SOLE may well provide that spark. Thank you for giving your presentation the very human face of your son, who obviously has a talent for ‘wondering’ and I’d love to be able to use Konrad Cybulski’s “Data Visualisation” graph if possible. It made me think of “squishy learning”. Now that we are back at school again, the challenge is implementing the new ideas in ways which will translate to ‘deep learning’. Thank you.

  5. I enjoyed reading this Tom, and had a look at the research you link to by Bonawitz. It seems to me (and my classroom experience backs this up) this idea of letting children find out for themselves (at times) is a really strong one and certainly inspires our young people to learn more…and more. Initially children, often older ones, are a bit confused when a question they ask gets a response of ‘Great question, I don’t know, what do you think, How can you find out?’ but they soon get the idea.
    This approach combined with access to knowledge and ideas via the Internet etc allows them to develop learning skills as well as keeping their interest maintainted.
    Many articles I read around a ‘big picture’ of politics and our working lives point out how vital it is that creativity and interest in learning and problem solving, yet my step-daughter’s education, undertaking her National 5 exams in Scotland shows precious little evidence of that (and Scotland is more progressive than most countries IMO).
    Keep up the great work Tom and NoTosh!

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