The 3 Most Important Words We Use

Raise your hand if you’ve ever told a student “I don’t know” only to have a look of shock, awe, or disgust appear before you. Many students believe that because you are a librarian, you must know everything! 

One of the best ways we can model lifelong learning is by using the three little words “I don’t know.” These words can send several important messages. People, no matter their job title, level of education, or expertise, don’t have all the answers. This can help boost confidence. Some kids think that in order to talk about something, whether it’s to a friend or in front of a group, they need to be experts. 

  • You can model how to locate the answers. Truth statement: I’ve often used those three magic words even when I HAVE known the answer just to make an excuse to model how to find the answer. 
  • Using “I don’t know” is a great way to gauge how well a student is able to navigate independent research. After making your statement, you can say, casually, “Since neither of us seem to know, where should we look first?” Using the word “we” builds trust and the sense that you’re in the knowledge hunt together. 
  • It’s an opportunity to show off your available resources. Sometimes we find ourselves paying for high-quality subscriptions or materials that aren’t often used. Use the search as a public way to highlight these resources. 
  • Make thinking visible. Turn your “I don’t knows” into a group lesson, display, or newsletter post. 
  • Looking for ways to co-teach this year? Model the use of mind-mapping and flowchart websites as ways to capture thinking about topics and questions posed in the classroom as a unit evolves. 
  • Four words. Growth mindset in action. 

Let’s face it, us librarians can get carried away. A simple “I don’t know” doesn’t need to be a huge inquiry project. Or it could be a huge inquiry project! :) Find experts. Ask your students! Make others shine by utilizing your students strengths to bring them in to the research process.

This school year, don’t forget to say those three words. I don’t know.


Author: Renee Bowman

Renee Bowman is the co-creator of the blog for parents and caregivers Raising Real Readers.  She’s twice been a teacher of the year for her district and was awarded the 2019 Samuel F. Hulbert Educator of the Year at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. She will complete her school librarian certification from IUPUI in May. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram at @RaisingRealReaders or on Twitter @RaisingReal.

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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1 reply

  1. Thank you for this important reminder, Renee.

    I hope you have this picturebook in your collection to support this practice for elementary students: Our Librarian Won’t Tell Us Anything (A Mrs. Skorupski Story) by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa (Upstart 2006).

    The real Mrs. Skorupski is a long-time friend and retired school librarian. Even if she did know the answer, she guided empowered students to discover it on their own.

    All the best for an exciting academic year,

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