The Power And Importance of Admitting Ignorance

Mitja Mavsar’s “the Netherlost” via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mitja Mavsar’s “the Netherlost” via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Intelligence is learning from your mistakes…”

Recently, I joined a group of professionals chatting with a class of graduate students about our experiences in the world of school librarianship. We asked if they had questions several times, and everyone seemed nervous about asking us questions. 

It sparked a memory, and I told the grad students a story. 

I’m a Genius (?)

When I was a young educator, there were a few times when we’d run out of lesson before we ran out of class time. So we’d play “Stump Mr. T” (not the guy from the A-Team; I wasn’t always “Dr. T”). Students could ask me questions about anything, and I’d come up with answers.

The questions started pretty easy. As an educated, widely-read, just-barely-an-adult teacher, I knew those answers. The kids did, too, and after half a dozen, they were vaguely impressed at how easily I was answering. 

A Flaw in the Logic

Then the students would move on to questions they didn’t know the answers to. Their logic was: If they didn’t know the answers, then neither would Mr. T! 

And they were right – there were plenty of questions asked that I didn’t know the answers to. But there was no way I was going to expose my ignorance to the students – heavens forfend! So I would come up with a plausible-sounding answer, and state it with conviction. Since they didn’t know the correct answers, and didn’t have a way to check if my answers were correct, the students were flabbergasted. “Mr. T knows everything!”

Now, there are a few things to bear in mind here. First, this was before there was an internet connection in every classroom. It was also before smartphones were a thing. And middle school students are not known for their towering wisdom, even if they are clever. 

The Wrong Lesson

I told this story to the grad students, and it got a laugh, and we moved on. I thought I was showing off my cleverness by sharing this story. But in hindsight, I realized that I told the story wrong, and I and the grad students took the wrong lesson from it. 

Educators – and school librarians in particular – are often seen (and often see themselves) as having and sharing all the answers. But this belief does a disservice to our students and ourselves. 

When students believe it, they start to think that adults are supposed to be infallible and omniscient, and that they, too, must become infallible and omniscient, and that they are failures if they don’t meet this impossible standard. Not only is this bad for students’ self-conception, but it also builds a barrier between students and the “infallible” educators. 

And when we believe that we’re supposed to be infallible, unstumpable, and all-knowing, it constrains our own development and learning. It makes us uncomfortable asking for help from others. It makes us reluctant to show any sign of ignorance in front of peers. Even worse, it stunts our intellectual and emotional growth. 

Be Open to Life-Long Learning

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It seems more than even before that people are willing to ruin their health, their community, and their friendships before they will admit they might be wrong. 

If I could turn back time, I would point out to the grad students that I was an idiot for making my students think I knew everything. I should have been modeling good learning practices – admitting when I didn’t know something, and discussing how I could find a reliable answer. Perhaps the most valuable lesson we can teach is that we all are ignorant in some areas, and that we need to be open to new knowledge and information. 

There seems to be a switch that gets flipped at some point in our early teen years that makes people believe asking questions makes us look stupid. I’d often advise my own students: “Ask the question you have. You are almost certainly not the only one in the room with that question. And if you stand on your pride, you’ll flail about BEING ignorant instead of (maybe) briefly appearing ignorant.” 

“…Wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others.”

Asking questions isn’t stupid. It’s the smartest thing we can do when we’re ignorant. If you don’t have the information you are seeking, you won’t have it until you look for it. And while it’s possible to locate information on our own, that’s often reinventing the wheel. It’s very likely someone we know can share their knowledge with us and provide us with the answer we’re seeking. 

The reality of the situation is that it’s not just okay to admit when we don’t know something – it’s important. Modeling life-long learning is important. And think about the efficacy and agency we can give to students if we let them be the ones who help us learn something! 

Our colleagues (and our students!) love to share. They love to help. They love to give information when they have it. It’s why we do what we do. 

Leaders have to admit when they’ve made a mistake if that mistake is going to get fixed. Wise leaders realize they don’t know everything, and surround themselves with experts and people who know how to find the right answers.

If we embrace life-long learning, we have to also embrace the fact that we are sometimes ignorant. But that can be a temporary condition, as long as we’re willing to admit we don’t know.


Author: Steve Tetreault

After 24 years as a classroom English Language Arts teacher, Steve became a school librarian in January 2022. He has earned an M.Ed. (2006) and an Ed.D. (2014) in Educational Administration and Supervision, and completed an M.I. degree in Library and Information Science (2019). He is certified as a teacher, school library media specialist, supervisor, and administrator. He is an old dog constantly learning new tricks!

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Literacy, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

4 replies

  1. I couldn’t agree more! It’s so important to let students (and adults) know that it shows intelligence, not weakness, when you ask questions!!

  2. I LOVE it when kids ask me a question to which I don’t have the answer. My reply is always, “I don’t know, but let’s find out.” I then think out loud as I demonstrate the process and tools for researching the question. Within a minute or two, we have not only the answer to the question but also an impromptu, real-world lesson on effective searching and a database (usually) demo. Bonus: the kids have learned something and I’ve learned something, too. Win-win!

  3. I also found this a hinderance when working with classroom teachers who sometimes admitted that they we’re uncomfortable with me sharing info with students that they didn’t know. They didn’t like feeling unintelligent in front of “their” students.

    Teacher librarians are perfect for exemplifying not’s at the heart of inquiry! In addition to the need for being OK with not having all the answers, we further need to realize that “we don’t even know what we don’t know”!

    Thanks Steve for sharing.

  4. I’m so glad this post struck a chord! I’m sure there are plenty of folks like me out there who have resisted being “caught out” without every answer to every question. As you all pointed out, demonstrating temporary ignorance is an important part of the learning process – it helps our students see that NO ONE has all the answers – and it’s an excellent chance to model good information seeking skills.

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